ATHLETE OF THE WEEK

Secaucus’ Rodriguez fits the bill as Pats’ new top scorer

Secaucus senior point guard Damaris Rodriguez
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Secaucus senior point guard Damaris Rodriguez

It looked as if the girls’ basketball program at Secaucus High School was losing a top scorer every single year.

Two years ago, Lindsey Mack graduated from the program and took her 1,685 career points with her to play at NCAA Division I Fairleigh Dickinson University.

Last year, Amanda Ulrich, the school’s all-time leading scorer with 2,220 points and the three-time Hudson Reporter Player of the Year, moved on to become a solid player at St. Leo University in Florida.

It meant one thing: Damaris Rodriguez, the point guard who delivered the ball that directly led to many of those 3,800-plus points scored by the Patriots, had to change her basketball ways a little.

“I’ve always been a pass-first point guard,” Rodriguez said. “I don’t think I had to change my mentality, but I knew that I had to shoot more than usual.”

Veteran Secaucus head girls’ basketball coach John Sterling knew that he was going to have to rely on Rodriguez, a three-time Hudson Reporter All-Area Second Team honoree, to score more than she had to in the past.

“She’s extremely coachable,” Sterling said. “She doesn’t talk much at all. If I suggest something, she just nods and does it. Her natural instinct is to pass the ball first, but Amanda’s not here and Lindsey Mack isn’t here, so a lot of the scoring this year was going to fall on her shoulders.”

Anticipating the increase in shooting, Rodriguez spent a lot of time practicing her shot.

“I understand that I had to do it,” Rodriguez said. “I’m in the gym every single day. I practice my shot all the time. I knew I could do it. I knew that I had to shoot more for us to win games. It’s different, but it’s actually pretty cool. No matter what, the ball is in my hands. I got the run of the game and if it means putting up more points, then that’s what I had to do. I know I can score.”

Since the beginning of the season, Rodriguez is indeed scoring more, helping the Patriots jump out to a 12-2 record. She’s averaging 16.5 points per game in her new role of being the Patriots’ top scorer. She had a season-high 27 points in a win over highly regarded Pascack Valley in the Joe Poli Holiday Tournament.

But Rodriguez is still racking up the assists, averaging eight assists per contest. She’s had four games this season with 10 or more assists, with one of those games coming in the win over Pascack Valley in December.

Rodriguez is also collecting five steals per contest, so she’s definitely filling up the statistic sheet every game.

Recently, Rodriguez enjoyed a sensational four-game streak. She had 16 points and 11 assists in a win over New Milford, had 17 points and six assists in a win over Bergen Charter, had 22 points and five assists in a loss to Bayonne and had 24 points, five assists and seven steals in a win over Lyndhurst.

For her efforts, Rodriguez has been selected as The Hudson Reporter Athlete of the Week for the past week.

Remarkably, it marks the first time in her brilliant career that Rodriguez had been selected for the weekly honor. Maybe it’s the fact that Rodriguez is a diminutive 5-foot-3 that has caused her to get a little overlooked.

“I think she’s getting to the foul line more,” Sterling said. “I think she can now pull up from 10 [feet], pull up from 12 and make those shots. If she takes the ball deep inside, then she can kick it out for an open shot from someone else. She’s fast in the open floor. If she gets a steal, no one can stop her.”
Sterling believes that Rodriguez had to change her game just a tad.

“There was an adjustment, no question,” Sterling said. “But it was a little subtle adjustment. She’s taking the open shot, but she’s also giving it up. Her decision making is fantastic. She knows who gets the ball where and when. She’s smart enough to know and good enough to make the right decision. And there are some teams that just can’t stay with her.”

Rodriguez doesn’t mind, as long as the ball is in her hands.

“I love playing basketball every day,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a blessing. Being able to score and pass the ball against better competition is a plus.”

Rodriguez was also a phenomenal soccer player at Secaucus and on the pitch, Rodriguez was counted on to be the goal scorer, knocking home 75 goals in her four-year career. Rodriguez had 21 goals last fall.

But Rodriguez, whose father is of Dominican descent and her mother of Cuban heritage, has decided to forego a soccer career moving forward to concentrate on basketball.

“It’s difficult, because I grew up playing soccer,” said Rodriguez, Secaucus’ all-time leader in goals scored. “I know there will be some parts of me that will miss soccer, but it’s best to stick with basketball.”

However, the colleges are not flocking to try to secure Rodriguez’s services. In fact, she’s had only a smidgeon of interest – and most of that has come from NCAA Division III schools.

“I’m stunned by it,” Sterling said. “In the e-mail I sent out to the college coaches, I said that we’ve had a bunch of players who have gone on to play college basketball, but none of them had the overall game that Damaris does. I told the coaches that she could definitely make your team better. I guess it’s mainly a size thing, but if you can play, the size shouldn’t matter.”

Rodriguez feels the same way.

“I know I have the talent,” said Rodriguez, who is a good student with a 3.2 grade point average and a score of 1,000 on the Scholastic Aptitude Tests. “They don’t know what they’re missing out on. I might have to go Division III.”

Rodriguez wants to study either physical education or criminal justice in college.

She’s happy with the way she’s playing.

“My game is going really well right now,” Rodriguez said. “From freshman to senior year, I’ve grown a lot as a point guard.”

Sterling was asked how to best describe his star point guard.

“She wanted to win,” Sterling said. “It didn’t matter if she scored four points or 24. She just loved winning. And she loves playing basketball. She’s just a happy kid. The four years coaching her have been a dream.”

Just recently, Dave Wilson, the long-time head girls’ basketball coach at New Milford, stopped Rodriguez after she had the 16-point, 11-assist performance.

“Dave said jokingly that he was happy to see her go after beating them for four years, but he said he was also sad because he loved to watch her play and loved how happy she was all the time,” Sterling said. “That was a great compliment.”

Rodriguez said that the best compliment she can get comes from the schoolyards.

“I can never be offended if someone thinks I play like a guy,” Rodriguez said. “That’s the best compliment if someone says you play like a guy.”

Guess what? Damaris Rodriguez plays like a guy every night and despite her size, she would be a gigantic asset to whatever school she decided to attend and play basketball. – Jim Hague

Jim Hague can be reached via e-mail at OGSMAR@aol.com