If you asked Waukegan’s Noelani Rodriguez to name her favorite participation sport a year ago, she would have said softball. She is the Bulldogs’ starting catcher.
However, after a successful first season as a 125-pound wrestler, Rodriguez might have a different answer — especially since she has won two tournaments and placed second in another to start her junior year.
“There is just something about wrestling that I love,” Rodriguez said. “I used to think about getting a college scholarship for softball, but now wrestling might be my future.”
Rodriguez’s change of heart can be traced to a flyer for girls wrestling that she saw hanging up in the school hallways last fall.
“It looked interesting, and I liked the idea of staying in shape during the winter before softball season,” she said. “And I heard about how hard wrestlers work.”
Rodriguez became one of those hardworking wrestlers under the tutelage of Waukegan coaches Andres Santana and Sam Taylor.
“You could tell right away Noelani was different,” Santana said. “She’s a supersmart kid who wanted to learn and wasn’t afraid to work at being a good wrestler. She’s easy to coach.”
Rodriguez capped her first wrestling season with a trip to Bloomington for the Illinois High School Association’s first-ever state meet for girls wrestling, and she went 1-1 there.
“Just to get downstate in Noelani’s first season means a lot in terms of experience,” Santana said. “Now, if she gets there again, she will be much more prepared.”
Rodriguez agreed with her coach.
“I was a little surprised I made it to state in my first season, but I knew that I learned a lot in practices and matches to make me a better wrestler,” she said. “It paid off by qualifying for state.”
Rodriguez is learning a lot more this season. She has already squared up against Hoffman Estates junior Emmy O’Brien, who defeated her in the third-place match at the Evanston Sectional last season.
Rodriguez and O’Brien met at the Niles West Invitational on Nov. 26, when both moved up to 130. O’Brien earned a pinfall in 1:39 in the championship match, handing Rodriguez her first — and only — loss this season.
Rodriguez rebounded by winning at 125 in the 18-team Waukegan invitational on Dec. 3, and a week later she pinned O’Brien to win the title at 125 at the 26-team Maine East Invitational.
“O’Brien is ranked second in the state at 125, and Noelani is now ranked fifth, so they have a nice little rivalry going,” Santana said.
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The season is still young, but Santana wants Rodriguez to be in her best shape heading into the state series.
“She’s already doing so well, but we want her to be hitting her stride in February,” Santana said. “She wants to get better, so she will go up against the boys in practice and try to find the best competition she can to be ready for upcoming matches.”
Rodriguez said she is learning more about the technical side of the sport this season.
“I had a few moves last year that worked, but I want to be able to do a lot more things on the mat this season,” she said. “I want to be prepared for any situation.”
She also wants to be prepared for college. But in which sport?
“I can maybe get a scholarship in wrestling somewhere and then try to walk on to the softball team because they are in different times of the year,” she said. “The only way I can do either of those things is to keep working hard to get better. Hopefully that will happen.”
Darren Day is a freelance reporter for the News-Sun.