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Article updated: 4/24/2013 10:53 AM

For South Elgin's Rodriguez, cheerleading a viable option

By John Radtke

Life is full of twists and turns.

Some create opportunity, some create torn ACLs.

South Elgin senior Kara Rodriguez can tell you all about both.

A multitalented and multisport athlete, Rodriguez spent the better part of her teen years to this point dreaming of playing softball in college on scholarship. No one questioned Rodriguez's ability to make that happen. In fact, before I knew her or had ever seen her play, when she played for the Fox Valley Renegades 14U travel team, I remember an umpire friend telling me Rodriguez was one of those "can't miss" prospects to play Division I softball. And that's when she was a catcher. She made the varsity as a freshman at South Elgin and hit .436. Another productive sophomore season had her on the fast track to become a highly recruited player.

But life takes the aforementioned twists and turns sometimes without asking us if we're ready for them, and that's what happened to Rodriguez on Sept. 28, 2011 in the South Elgin gym. A longtime high school and club cheerleader, Rodriguez came down from a routine and slipped on something that shouldn't have been on the mat.

And just like that a torn ACL changed her future.

She not only had to miss the 2011-12 basketball season, where she would have been a starter for the Storm, but she also missed the prime softball recruiting period for high school juniors.

She came back strong, playing for coach Jason Schaal's softball team last spring, Tim Prendergast's basketball team this winter and, of course, returned to cheerleading for South Elgin football as well as with her club team, the All-Star Rebels in Geneva.

But softball interest waned. Not because she was any less of a player after the injury, but because of the timing more than anything. There was enough interest from a Division II school in Colorado that she visited but when it came down to it, that school chose to make offers to other athletes ahead of Rodriguez. Wisconsin-Parkside offered, but here's where this story also becomes one of maturity. As badly as Rodriguez wanted to play softball in college, Parkside didn't offer her academic love -- broadcast communications -- as a major. Her teacher in that department at South Elgin, a guy named Ben Erickson who knows a little about athletes, will be the first to tell you that Rodriguez is every bit as talented in the classroom, and in that specific field, as she is on a softball field, a basketball court or in a cheerleading uniform.

So the final decision was to turn down Parkside's offer.

A couple of visits to the Dallas, Texas area to visit family were intriguing to Rodriguez, the daughter of Kevin and Kim Rodriguez of Elgin. She started looking at schools in the Dallas area and one that had a state-of-the-art broadcast communications program was the University of North Texas in Denton.

I have to admit I had never heard of the school, but quickly learned what great athletic facilities it has when it was showcased as the host for the NCAA men's basketball Midwest Region finals last month.

Last month, Rodriguez made a visit to the North Texas campus with the hopes of the Mean Green (yes, that's the school's nickname) softball team still looking for a 2013 graduate.

It wasn't.

But the cheer team was holding tryouts a few weeks later. And a light came on in Rodriguez's head.

"Once my (softball) options ended I thought why not try a different route," said Rodriguez, a standout student as well who is in Florida this weekend with the All-Star Rebels competing in the world championships. "I wanted to go out-of-state for college but not being involved in something would make it hard to make friends."

Call it an impulse, or call it one of those twists you didn't see coming, but Rodriguez decided to try out for the North Texas cheer team last week. She had already decided to go to school at North Texas so she figured why not try out for the cheer team.

And she made it, selected as one of 30 who will cheer for the Mean Green this fall. And this is no Podunk school. Away football games include trips to Georgia, Rice, Tulane, Southern Mississippi and Tulsa.

"It hasn't settled in yet," said Rodriguez, who plays for the Northern Illinois Lightning 18U travel softball team, earlier this week. "I'm excited about it but it's not real to me yet."

Let's be clear about being a cheerleader for an NCAA Division I school. It's not something you just show up on Saturday to do. According to the North Texas cheerleading website, the time commitment includes 4-6 hours per week for practice as well as numerous appearances at various athletic department functions, Friday night pep rallies and weeknight appearances on home football weeks and travel. On home football days, cheerleaders are required to be at Mean Green Village four hours prior to game time. It's every bit the commitment that many college sports require. Physically, there is no question that on its highest level, which Rodriguez is, cheerleading is as physically demanding as any sport, if not more so.

And to think that during her time off from cheerleading to recover and rehab the ACL, Rodriguez thought she might not go back to a sport she first took up as a 9-year old cheering for the South Elgin Patriots youth football team before beginning to competitively cheer when she was in fourth or fifth grade, joining the All-Star Rebels when she was in the eighth grade.

"I didn't think I'd want to," she said of returning to cheerleading after the injury. "But once I stopped doing it I realized how much I missed it."

Schaal couldn't be happier for his shortstop. Sure, given a choice, Schaal is among those who would have loved to see her earn a softball scholarship. But ... twists and turns.

"It's very impressive for her to land a spot as a Division I cheerleader," Schaal said. "We want to see our kids go to college and succeed. I give Kara credit. She had an offer from Parkside but they didn't have what she wanted to study. She said the most important thing to her was to go to a school that had her major. Not a lot of kids do that and I'm proud of Kara for sticking to her guns.

"She's going to school to study what she wants to study and she's going to be a Division I cheerleader. I wish her the best. She may be one of the most athletically talented girls I've ever coached. She's also an excellent young lady and she's going to do well at everything."

And hopefully, the twists and turns of Rodriguez's future will be injury-free.

jradtke@dailyherald.com

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