SAN JUAN — It comes with the territory of experience, the knowledge of how to play the system. So as Edinburg North’s Destiny Rodriguez battered away on P-SJ-A’s star Friday night, she intuited when to ease off, just when the officials were about to banish her for the night, and for one game, to boot.

The strategy was to follow high-scoring Sammie Sifuentes, who can change a game all by herself, like a shadow, and the Lady Coogs spent the night trying to rough the senior leader up, knocking her down eight times. Rodriguez got three of the good shots, received a yellow card for one particularly nasty collision, but managed to stick around long enough to assist on the go-ahead goal in overtime of a 3-1 win. Her tremendous centering ball from the left corner led to a Jamie Torres goal on the road, putting her team in the lead.

All the while, the senior wing playfully yo-yoed the refs, smiling, protesting, lobbying for sympathy, and finally, cantering dramatically to the bench for one long stretch to avoid their wrath. It’s all part of being team captain and a four-year starter on a unit that is desperate for senior leadership in the face of massive graduation losses. Another day at the office for one of the Valley’s most endearing characters.

“I know, I know, I mouth off sometimes,” she laughed Friday after the win that evened the team’s District 31-5A record at 1-1 and made it 17-5 overall. “I like to pick at the refs to try and gain an advantage…after the games, they’ll say, ‘Good game, No. 7, but I almost had to card you AGAIN!’”

After four years of campaigning in the Valley soccer wars, Rodriguez has learned when to chatter and when to shut up. She knows the refs like old friends from summer camp.

“You have to read who’s out there and what they’re like,” she explained interrupting a babysitting session to shoot the breeze on the phone. “Some are going to let you play and others aren’t. If you see someone new, you gotta test him out, like, see what he’s going to call.”

ALL-VALLEY TALKER

Rodriguez speaks so quickly and with so much enthusiasm, one is tempted to smile as she goes on down the hill, 100 mph; she works as hard in conversation as she does on the pitch, causing the listener to laugh and shake his head yes and no as she speeds through an interlocution. When does she breathe?

 Destiny is something else, the senior class president at North, soccer ace, and future pageant combatant, all rolled into a pleasant, girlish package. It’s a bit incongruous to watch her clobber enemies on the green but be so sweet off it. She works 20 hours a week at HEB, is ranked near the top of her academic class, and is able to carry on multiple discourses at one time, all in an upbeat, charismatic way, rolling over attempts to interrupt her with the same breakneck pace at which she churns through opposing defenses.

And now, it’s not all talk for the strong-legged charger. This season is the culmination of all the lessons she’s filed away in her career at North. She’s counted on to lead the way these days, and spends a considerable amount of time analyzing the situation from myriad angles. The ironic part is, after all the battles with beloved Coach Danny Valdez, this spirited overachiever is beginning to identify with him, something she never, ever imagined would be the case.

“We’ve had our moments, of course,” she cracked about the stern taskmaster who over the course of the past decade has forged the program into a consistent threat to go deep into the playoffs. He’s known as a tough customer, not loath to let his girls have it when displeased. And he hammers Rodriguez constantly with acerbic but heartfelt “advice.”

“He’s always telling us something and I love that about him,” said Rodriguez, who has been nursing a quad injury the past two weeks but gutted it up against P-SJ-A to key her squad to a much-needed victory. The Lady Coogs, who have won seven playoff games the past four years, were whipped 4-0 by Harlingen Tuesday to start the league slate on a decidedly down note.

“We played crappy against Harlingen, no doubt. Like I don’t know, we just didn’t have it,” she began. “And Valdez, he wasn’t going to let it go, he went up and down the line and had something for everyone. ‘You should have stayed home,’ or ‘What were you doing out there?’ Or ‘You’d better go to JV.’ And you know what? He was right, we stunk and we needed to hear that.”

GROWING UP

There was a time when the young Destiny might have balked at the criticism, or hung her head. She appeared on the North horizon as a physically gifted freshman in 2007, but was not quite ready for prime time, mentally. In the P-SJ-A game Friday, Valdez had gotten on some of his younger kids for apologizing to Sifuentes after decking her. Rodriguez laughed, as she does all the time, even sometimes onfield.

“Heck, when I was a freshman it happened to me…I was in practice and knocked someone down, an upperclassman,” she recalled. “And I was like scared…’Omigod, I’m sorry…sorry, sorry sorry!’ Well, Valdez yelled at me, told me not to say sorry. So, I didn’t think, I just answered, ‘Sorry, sorry, I’m sorry.’ I thought he was going to lose it. But he just shook his head.”

Four years and over 100 caps will tend to sharpen a player’s skills along with their mental approach. Rodriguez is now tasked with leading a relatively inexperienced Lady Coog bunch, and finds herself sounding like Valdez more and more.

“I see it now, the frustration he and Mac have with us,” she admitted, referencing long-time assistant Raul McCullum. “They have to tell us time and time again, and sometimes we don’t do what they want. It’s my job to help the younger girls figure out what to do, and sometimes it’s tough.”

The goal is to translate the things the team works on in practice to game nights, but the transfer is not always a smooth one.

“If you haven’t played a lot of varsity soccer, there is a tendency to be intimidated,” she suggested. “We have been timid at times this year, not going to the ball or getting rid of it fast enough. When the seniors get on the other girls, we tell them that they cannot be offended, they just have to understand that on the field, we’re serious, and there isn’t much joking. We’re here to win!”

That is something she picked up from ex greats Katy Lipscomb and Paige Gutierrez, plus a host of other older kids who came before her at North. Rodriguez knows that she is it this year, the bulwark and rock that the others look to for guidance, and big plays.

“What you want is for the young girls to reach a point where they know what they’re doing, and can begin to talk out there on the field,” she noted. “It doesn’t matter how old you are, once you get it, you get it, and your job is to remind your teammates in a positive way what they have to do.

“Last year Katy and Paige were so good, they’d make us all better, the passes were just a given, you knew you’d get the ball and in the right place. Now, we are still not there yet, and I’m not sure we have total dedication from every player. That’s what we have to have if we want to do well again. Our conditioning isn’t where it needs to be, either, but I know we are capable of winning.”

Rodriguez can be critical of herself and her teammates because she’s earned the right thanks to hard work and performance on the pitch. The team listens to her because all the while, she’s friendly and reassuring. But she can also lay down the law in a heartbeat.

“To learn, we repeat things a lot, and I tell the girls that talk is cheap, we need to show it on the field, in the games,” she stressed. “Come forward, move up with the ball, one- or two-touch, and get rid of it. The little things, that’s where we haven’t really gelled yet, not totally. But we need to. And soon.”

PROGRESS REPORT

In the P-SJ-A game, the three-time All-District pick once again showed her bona fides, embodying the lessons learned that she is trying to help the underclassmen grasp. North started well and got up, 1-0, but lost Sifuentes in the second half, allowing a tying goal from her midway through. With a minute left in the opening 40 minutes, the star wing had over-hit, was carded, and two more warning tickets to Lady Coogs followed in the second half of a brutally physical match.

“We had to maintain our cool, while still taking it to them,” Rodriguez explained. “My leg was really starting to hurt but I had a feeling that some time in the night, I was going to have to forget about it and just go hard.”

In overtime, she returned from an extended rest, with Valdez asking her whether she could go. After a nano-second of hesitation, No. 7 threw off the blanket and careened back into the fight. Quickly she fought through a double team and nearly produced the go-ahead goal. Five minutes later, at 2:29 of the first OT session, she came through.

Chasing a long ball 40 yards deep into the left corner, she reached it right at the end line. Dribbling two feet off the corner, Rodriguez lofted a beautiful arching pass right into the zone. Freshman Kim Rodriguez, a good example of the promising youngster that Rodriguez and Valdez are busy mentoring in 2010, took a crack at it, but was blocked. The rebound came to Jamie Torres and she was true for a 2-1 lead. Kim Rod put another home with only three seconds left in the session and the Lady Coogs pulled one out on the road.

“When I was in the corner I knew I would have to kick one, long and hard,” Destiny said. “I told myself, ‘Dude, this is going to hurt, but you gotta do it.’ As soon as I swung, the pain was intense, sharp. I thought, ‘This had better be a goal!’”

It was, and formed the turning point in a match that North had to win to avoid going down 0-2 on district. As they chase Harlingen South and perhaps EHS for the top spot in 31-5A, moments like this are going to be the difference for the Lady Coogs. Rodriguez, putting into effect all the bullet points on confidence, conditioning, and mental toughness which have accrued from four long years in the program, understands that if she is going to be a leader, she has to make it happen in the clutch.

“I was looking at a picture of me from four years ago, and geez I was nerdy, all with braces,” she giggled. “I was thinking back to when I started playing soccer, fourth grade…I couldn’t keep my balance at all, I was always falling down! But now that I have worked all these years, and begun to understand where the coaches are coming from, it’s all making sense. I love to play the game and it’s really fun to help people out, like others helped me out.”

The upshot is that she can do things now that in the past might have seemed off limits. She’s still good-natured and fun, but is the first one to start hollering on the field when the action isn’t unfolding the right way. Rodriguez knows when to giggle and when to growl, when not to take “no” for an answer.

“Take this pageant stuff for example,” she said sheepishly, knowing that for most athletes, that sort of “girly” thing is foreign at least and a waste of time at best. “I got named homecoming queen this year and because of that, I got some mail about being eligible to enter some pageant contest, the group is in Tennessee,” she said. “Well, they only take 60 girls out of 600 who apply, and for three months, I didn’t hear anything, I thought, forget it, I’ll never get it.

“But all of a sudden, I got a letter telling me congratulations, and I was like, ‘What? Wow.’ So now I am in it, it’s mainly about personal interviews and how you speak.”

Rodriguez cackled over the phone.

“I think I can handle the talking part, you know what I mean? And the good thing is, there isn’t any swimsuit stuff or junk like that. I mean, you can be the ugliest girl in the world and still have a chance to win!”

Typical funny business from North’s buoyant senior leader, not too full of herself but determined to work hard and succeed at anything she tries. Destiny Rodriguez is a rare bird, with superb accomplishments, a bright future beginning to materialize, but the confidence and grace to treat the whole deal as nothing special.

Which it actually is.