Raquel Rodriguez admits playing soccer and attending college in the United States has been a dream come true, and on the field she has had quite the impact.
The freshman midfielder is fifth on the Penn State women’s soccer team in total points, tied for first in assists and was a unanimous Big Ten Freshman of the Year selection.
And to think, she was within hours of not coming here at all.
Rodriguez —“Rocky” as she is called by teammates — had been waiting most of the spring and summer to get official word from the NCAA that her credits were good to enroll in a U.S. college as an athlete and there were no improprieties. She didn’t get the approval she needed until fewer than 48 hours before she was scheduled to leave.
“Wow,” Rodriguez said of that midsummer afternoon. “That day I’ll remember forever.”
Nittany Lion soccer fans have been thankful for that day ever since, and another chance to see her on the field comes tonight in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The top-seeded Lions (18-3-1) face Boston College (10-5-3) at 7:30 p.m. at Jeffrey Field, following a 5 p.m. contest between Michigan and Portland.
The native of Costa Rica has four goals and nine assists this season, and has played a major role despite being in her first season. She is fifth on the team in minutes played among position players, and she has the poise and thoughtfulness of a senior or someone even older.
Some of that comes from her on-field experience, having played on the under-17, under-20 and full national team for Costa Rica in the same year. She was with the national team at the regional qualifier for the Olympics last winter in Vancouver, Canada — where she saw snow for the first time — and has played against many of the world’s best.
“She’s so different, she’s so special,” head coach Erica Walsh said. “She’s played in more world cups, youth world cups, Olympics. You look at her resume, it’s unlike that of any other player in the college game. She’s got more experience than any of these players.”
Walsh still remembers the first time she saw Rodriguez play in Boca Raton, Fla., at a huge annual youth tournament that features the top players in the U.S. Walsh will be there again next week, regardless of whether the Nittany Lions advance to the national quarterfinals, and many of the current team members played in that tournament.
Walsh was watching a match that had current Nittany Lion freshman Mallory Weber on the Northern U.S. regional team facing the Costa Rican team when another midfielder caught her attention.
“There was this player in the middle of the midfield, and she was just better than anyone — by far,” Walsh said. “Then I realized she was 14 years old and physically she looked like she does now.”
Not long after, Rodriguez committed to Penn State, even though she never saw the campus. She and her family found pictures online, and Walsh made several videos of various events on campus.
By the time Rodriguez was playing in that tournament, she was already thinking she would be returning to the U.S. to play in college.
“Since I was a kid I wanted to come to the States, and play and study at the same time,” Rodriguez said. “I knew for sure I was going to come to the States, I just didn’t know what college. I took that step of faith.”
But eventually, there were snags. The typical story was about her classes, and whether they met the NCAA’s standards, but also there was a misunderstanding about Rodriguez’s age at first — Walsh thought she was a year older — and whether Walsh had contacted Rodriguez too early.
“From there things got better and worse all at the same time,” Walsh said. “It was a classic case of NCAA challenges, transcripts and just a series of events.”
Then came the waiting game, where days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months. Rodriguez said her father had been depressed over the wait, and there was tension in her house over whether she would be leaving.
Walsh was also feeling it, and doing all she could to change things.
“She kept asking, ‘Should I be worried?’” Walsh said. “For months I said no, but as it got closer I said yes, and it was out of our hands. I contemplated flying to Indianapolis. I knew there was nothing I could do. I contemplated flying to Costa Rica, but it’s summertime. Nobody’s at work. It was the beginnings of an awful situation that would have led to her missing on an education.”
While her family had very little money to spare, they decided to take a chance. The deadline was nearing, practices were about to begin for the season and Rodriguez had to leave for America. She rolled the dice and bought a plane ticket.
“I thought my dream was not going to come true,” Rodriguez said. “I was just so frustrated.”
Late on a Friday afternoon, with her flight leaving on the following Sunday morning, the phone call she had anxiously been awaiting finally came – she was in.
“She can’t stop saying ‘Thank you,’” Walsh said. “I can’t stop thinking it should be the other way around.”
She says being away from home has been tough, and she doesn’t think her family will get to see her play here until next season, she hopes. But she at least has a place to be comfortable.
“Every time that I play soccer, its something I like so it’s something that keeps my mind on something that I like,” Rodriguez said. “It helps me to actually not think about home. It’s the only way for sure that I’ll have fun.”
It has been fun for the Nittany Lions, and worth all the toil and trouble to help Rodriguez chase her dream and get her education.
“I predict she will be a national player of the year before she graduates,” Walsh said. “She’s just in a different class.”