Lafayette racquetball coach wins big for cultivating team excellence

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Photo Courtesy of Manny Rodriguez

Lafayette Racquetball coach Manny Rodriguez has coached the Lancers to a national championship in 2020. He was given the award on March 6 during the 2022 National High School Racquetball Championships.

Janka Gerber, Staff Reporter

“I am unbelievably ecstatic to have won such an honor, and when I think about the fact that this is voted on by my peers, that they see all the hard work our program has been through. After 10 years from four kids to over 50 kids, I appreciate that they acknowledge all the hard work that has been put into this, and considering that I don’t do it for any of that, but that it was acknowledged is like, wow. I feel like I still can’t believe that it actually happened. I still can’t get over it, it’s crazy,” Lafayette racquetball coach Manny Rodriguez said. 

The work Rodriguez has put into the team and the community has not gone unnoticed by his peers. On March 6, he was recognized with the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee and USA Racquetball Developmental Coach of the Year Award at the USA Racquetball High School National Championships at Vetta Racquet Sports-Concord in St. Louis where the LHS Racquetball team finished in second place overall.

Rodriguez has been coaching for 17 years. He has spent 10 of those years working with the students of Lafayette, but before he came to coach in St. Louis, he started his coaching career somewhere else. 

“I started a collegiate program at Indiana State University. I was working in a retail shop that sells online racquetball equipment, and I was like, ‘I should start a racquetball program to start bringing interest to the store.’ I started the collegiate program first, and then I started the junior program. They had 10 beautiful courts and I thought to myself, ‘these things aren’t being used,’” Rodriguez said. 

Lafayette Racquetball was created in 2012 by what the varsity girls team has dubbed the “Core Four”. From its inception, the team has grown substantially in numbers, creating a different dynamic for Coach Rodriguez to work with.

“With middle schoolers, they are all about fun with their friends. When they’re here with their friends that’s all they want, so they always do their drills, they always do their play, and then they learn when competition begins they don’t like losing and then that’s where a lot of their growth begins. High schoolers, with them they’re going through their growth spurt of getting older, getting closer to adults. The personalities are worldly different from middle school to high school, and learning how to handle that is part of the fun, but at the same time I want to be a better coach and that helps me be a better coach in learning how to deal with the different personalities,” Rodriguez said.

The age gaps don’t deter Rodriguez, instead he finds that it makes the learning process for both him and his players more fun. 

“I’ve grown a lot watching the kids grow. Learning how to interact with the kids and interact with so many personalities. That has really helped me understand, number one, human beings, number two, how everyone is their own person. And then how do I help them enjoy the sport that much more being who they are. Not to mention the kids here make it so much fun, it’s almost like I’m going to a fun organization except I’m in control of their progress in the sport, and I have fun while doing it. That’s probably the main thing that keeps me feeling like ‘ok, I can definitely keep doing this, you guys make this fun,’” Rodriguez said. 

 Senior Ashleigh Howard, who is on the girls varsity “A” team, has had a chance to see how the coach has grown the program.

“Coach Manny played a huge part in my life growing up. I struggled with friendship and accepting myself in middle school and he helped me through it. He not only taught me to play a sport I love, he also taught me how to believe in myself. He has taught me important lessons in life like how to react calmly in tough situations and stay focused. He taught me that I have to believe in myself so that I can get the results I wish for. He has done this for many kids on the team. Over the years, I have seen my friends grow and mature. It is easy to get frustrated when playing a sport and he always taught us to remain calm. I can see that it has transferred over into our lives,” Howard said. 

 Howard has been able to see her own friendships grow and flower into something more through the team and Rodriguez’s coaching. 

“I’ve been playing for seven years which is a long time considering the team started only 10 years ago. I started learning to play in 5th Grade and finally joined the team officially in 6th Grade. My older sister and her best friend started the girls team seven years ago and my friends and I quickly joined after. Over the years, we have grown together and other girls have joined us. These girls are my family. They are my best friends and without racquetball, I don’t know if I would have ever met them. Most of the ‘new girls’, compared to when Ava, Janka and I started, joined the team in 8th Grade. We’ve been playing together for five years now and like I said, these girls are my rock. They quickly became my best friends and I spent a lot of time with them,” Howard said. “These past seven years playing racquetball have been more than playing a sport for me. I’ve met amazing people and had unbelievable experiences. Racquetball has shaped my life into what it is today and I couldn’t ask for more.”

Rodriguez’s passion and drive has permeated through the girls team. Each player on varsity “A” has been preparing for this week for over two years. After just barely missing 3rd place in 2020, the girls were hungry for a championship. 

While Nationals was the main thing in their minds, the girls team as well as Coach Rodriguez know that their experience together is all coming to an end soon, an experience that started seven years ago and relationships that have been cultivated through those years. 

“Every year, maybe every other year, we have kids that graduate. But with this particular group of kids that are graduating, it feels a little different because some of them have been with this program for seven years, that’s a long time considering we’re only a 10 year team. Having that part of our growth, kind of hits the heart really hard, but the flip side of that is the transition that I’m learning to go through kind of makes it exciting, because I can see how the system works, now I need younger kids, which now we have all these young middle school kids. I’m looking forward to that transition to learn how to deal with that, because that is different, but at the same time there’s so much excitement to look forward to in the future. It’s a great transition to go through while still being sad that the core group is leaving,” Rodriguez said. 

Howard also feels the weight of leaving the sport she has devoted her life to for the past seven years, and all the lessons she learned along with her friends, and her coach. 

“I’m sure my life would be completely different if I had never joined racquetball and had Manny as a coach. He is an amazing role model and leader. I know I’ll miss him and my teammates when we leave for college. His impact on the team is so clear to me. He started Lafayette Racquetball from nothing and has grown it to amazing heights. We have kids who are in 4th grade joining the team. I can’t wait to come back in a few years to see how Manny’s wisdom and guidance has affected them. I’m sad to be leaving the team, but I know it is in great hands and that in just a few years, our team will be extraordinarily talented,” Howard said.