By KEVIN ROBERTS
Elijah Rodriguez shot out of the starting block like a missile, his lower body working harder and going faster with each gliding step. To those watching him at West Hartford’s Hall High School, it looked so easy.
Rodriguez took his steps and cleared the first huddle, then the next one, then the next one. His opponent was with him early on, but Rodriguez wasn’t about to lose this race. When Rodriguez crossed the finish line, all the frustrations from nagging injuries during his senior season were washed away. Rodriguez had made the ultimate comeback and won gold in the 110m hurdles (15.27 seconds) at the CCC West division championship meet on May 21.
“He always had a clear vision of his goals and didn’t let his injuries get in his way,” assistant coach Heather Pierce said. “That type of perseverance is commendable, and I was very proud of how hard he worked to make it into the state open.”
Not only did Rodriguez win gold at the CCC meet, but he claimed bronze in the same event at the Class LL championships on May 29, with a faster time than his win in West Hartford (15.25). It was his first and only all-state recognition in his time at Southington High School. Rodriguez missed his personal record of 15.17—set in his sophomore season—by 0.08 second.
“To manage to come that close to your personal record with so little training is pretty impressive,” said head coach Dan Dachelet.
Rodriguez ran 15.28 at the State Open, where he finished ninth and was one spot outside of qualifying for the finals. Rodriguez didn’t run the 110m hurdles in a meet in his senior outdoor campaign until the regular season finale against NW Catholic on May 15 at Southington High. Rodriguez is heading to college to play soccer for the University of Saint Joseph in West Hartford, and he didn’t have to run during the indoor and outdoor track seasons, but he did.
Dachelet said Rodriguez wanted a different outcome than what happened during the 2017-18 indoor and 2018 outdoor seasons. Rodriguez was hurt by mistakes and injuries.
“He wanted to write a different ending to his book, and I appreciate that as a coach,” Dachelet said.
That’s what a leader does, that’s what a senior captain does. A senior captain sticks around when the going gets tough, and that’s what Rodriguez did during his final soccer season in the fall of 2018. Southington struggled to score goals and finished 4-10-2. Rodriguez was there for every moment, good, bad or otherwise.
“He’s like the “speak softly but carry a big stick” type of person. As I think about him, that quote comes to mind,” soccer coach Dave Yanosy said.
When Rodriguez spoke, however, his teammates listened. That’s because Rodriguez led by example and would do anything to help the team, whether it was play in the back on defense or run up into the box to try to get his head on a corner kick.
“He’s got that soccer savvy. He reads the game exceptionally well,” Yanosy said.
Rodriguez had a knack for making clutch plays, which he showed as early as his sophomore season.
“He was a clutch performer. He had, going back to his sophomore year, he had our lone goal in the state tournament,” Yanosy said.
Rodriguez was really clutch during his junior season. In his second game back from an injury earlier in the season, a 2-1 win over NW Catholic on Oct. 2, Rodriguez scored both goals, including the winner in the 71st minute. On Oct. 16, Rodriguez scored the winner in the 68th minute of a 2-1 victory over Avon. He scored six goals in his junior season.
Throughout his career, Rodriguez showed his versatility. He started out as a right back, then played right midfielder and forward. As a senior, he was the lynchpin of the defense, which helped keep Southington in games. That ability to move around, along with good ball skills and technique, will help him get on the field and excel at the University of Saint Joseph.
“He’s got a really good shot to excel at the next level because of his speed, his size and his versatility,” Yanosy said.
Rodriguez will play alongside former Southington standout Hayden Burbank. Rodriguez sees similarities between Rodriguez and Burbank. Both were all-conference performers, with Rodriguez earning the distinction during his senior season.
“They’re great to work with, they work hard, they have the respect of their teammates,” Yanosy said.
Rodriguez ended his soccer career with 10 goals and three assists.
During his senior indoor track season, Rodriguez showed the speed that will make him tough to contain as a college soccer player. At CCC championship meet on Jan. 26 at New Haven’s Floyd Little Athletic Center, Rodriguez ran in the 55m hurdles and earned silver. Injuries caught up to the senior captain, and he didn’t start in the preliminaries of that event at the Class LL meet on Feb. 9. When healthy, Rodriguez was a versatile track athlete who could run dashes, hurdles and anchor legs on relays.
“To have him would have been quite another weapon,” Dachelet said.
Rodriguez’s athleticism first came into focus during his sophomore outdoor season in 2017.
“One of the first meets of the year, sophomore year, I put him into the JV race of the R-J meet, and there’s a JV category and a varsity category,” Dachelet said.
Rodriguez blew past his competition in the 110m hurdles, and his time would have won the varsity race.
“He runs the race, and we’re watching it, and he basically did what you’ve seen him do, that first day. He flew over the hurdles,” Dachelet said.
He finished first in the JV race, with a time of 15.8 seconds. That was over two seconds better than his previous personal best.
“He toasted the whole field, and we’re like where did he come from,” Dachelet said.
Rodriguez went on to earn gold in the 110m hurdles (15.17) and bronze in the 300m hurdles (40.54) at the CCC Central Division meet on May 23 at Simsbury High School.
At the Yale Interscholastic Track Classic at Coxe Cage on Jan. 20, 2018, Rodriguez took third in the 55m hurdles in 7.79 seconds and broke the school record. It was the third time that season that Rodriguez had improved his time. When injuries got to Rodriguez, he didn’t visibly show frustration and continued to work.
“Once he figured out to be that elite hurdler, he was always able to pick it back up,” Dachelet said.
When Rodriguez was sidelined, he put his focus on not only getting better, but helping his teammates.
“Even if he was injured, he’d still be talking to his guys,” Yanosy said.
“Eli was also a great mentor for the underclassmen hurdlers,” Pierce said. “On many occasions, without being asked, Eli would take the underclassmen aside and work on technique drills or offer advice about how to successfully three-step the 110 hurdles. In order to do this, you have to be elite in your event and Eli certainly knows the ins and outs of hurdling. The underclassmen looked up to Eli and benefited greatly from working with such an accomplished hurdler.”
Rodriguez was a three-time outdoor all-conference honoree, as well as a two-time indoor all-conference honoree. What may have been more valuable to all three programs—soccer, indoor track and outdoor track—was Rodriguez’s quiet leadership.
As Yanosy put it, when Rodriguez spoke, teammates listened. He also led by example, as could be seen during the senior outdoor season.
“All the races where he wasn’t there [to compete], he would help out,” Dachelet said. “He became our hurdles leader. At the home meets, he would take charge of that and make sure the hurdles are all set up, which is actually a huge savings, a huge thing for us.”
And when Rodriguez wasn’t helping out, he was rehabilitating himself.
“Even though he had his fair share of injuries during his senior season, he continued to fine tune his hurdling technique during his rehabilitation and made it his goal to make it to the State Open,” Pierce said.
Why did Rodriguez’s teammates look up to him and listen to him?
“It’s his presence, he’s a very mature kid. The kids look up to him for his work ethic, the kids look up to him for his tenacity,” Dachelet said. “He understands what he needs to do, and he works toward that goal.”
“Eli is very coachable and can make small adjustments to his technique quickly in order to make his form even more efficient,” Pierce said.
For his outstanding athletic achievements, versatility, and leadership, Elijah Rodriguez is The Observer’s 2019 Male Athlete of the Year, but that’s no surprise to fans and coaches.
“Eli is one of the most talented, dedicated, and hardworking athletes that I have coached,” Pierce said. “He came to practice every day ready to work and better his skillset.”
“A tremendous athlete, tremendous soccer player, but also a kid who is of high character,” Yanosy said. “When you have them as a coach, you relish it. He certainly put a stamp on and made a mark on this program, that’s for sure.”
Yanosy also had this to say: “He really is a super kid. He’s a great choice for that reason as well.”
To comment on this story or to contact staff writer Kevin Roberts, email him at KRoberts@SouthingtonObserver.com.
To download a pdf version, click here: 2019 Athletes of the Year