Van Horn junior Angel DeAvila had something to show boys soccer coach Jesus Rodriguez during a team meal.
It was a day before the Falcons’ biggest game of the year – a Class 3 state quarterfinal matchup with Jefferson City Helias Catholic Saturday at home.
DeAvila whipped out his cell phone and showed Rodriguez a picture that popped up on his Facebook page. It was a photo at team banquet from a year ago.
“At this time last year, our season was over,” Rodriguez said after his team defeated the Crusaders 4-1 to advance to the state semifinals for the first time in program history.
With the win over Helias, after 18 years, the program finally established itself as a power, and Rodriguez is a huge part of that.
It all started in 2008. Van Horn moved from the Kansas City Public School District to the Independence School District, which was the first step into building the program into a winner.
Current activities director Chris Corrie took over the program after the move, and only had six people show up to the first practice of the season. He later managed to recruit more students to play, and had three winning seasons.
In 2013, Greg Millick took over. In his second year he led the Falcons to a state quarterfinal appearance and an 18-6 record. Millick departed Van Horn to coach at Rogue Community College in Oregon after two years.
Corrie then hired Rodriguez for the job – a former star player and assistant coach at Graceland University. Things were not easy for him during his first year.
“I saw lots of talent without the discipline,” Rodriguez said of the 2015 Falcons. “Chris (Corrie) was a bit disappointed with me (for cutting seniors from the 2014 team). They were good players. Their mentality was not there. I was also not used to having to stop practice every 10 minutes to stop an argument. My first year, I will be honest, I didn’t enjoy coaching.”
He cut six out of seven seniors from the 2014 quarterfinal team in an effort to improve the team chemistry and develop the underclassmen.
The coach had to convince his players to lift weights consistently, work hard in the classroom and stay late after practice. It was a process. The Falcons were 8-11 in his first year. Then in 2016, they were 19-6 and lost to Kansas City East in the district championship game. Rodriguez’s tough-minded approach started to resonate with his players.
In 2017, the Falcons had an undefeated regular season going into a game against Kansas City East in the Class 3 District 15 championship game. It was season in which the expectations were high. Even before the season started, Rodriguez and his players weren’t shy about those expectations. They thought it was the year the Falcons would finally get to the state final four.
It was not to be. Rodriguez had a feeling something was off during the bus ride to East before the district championship. His players were unusually quiet. The nerves were setting in, and they lost to the Bears 3-1.
That loss stuck with Rodriguez and his guys for a year and they made sure this year was different. The Falcons were confident going into the district championship game against Grain Valley. They won 4-1, earning a first-place district plaque and effectively exorcising their demons from the previous two years.
Two wins later, Rodriguez will finally get to realize his dream of coaching on the big stage Friday.
He had plenty of talent to help him along the way – all-state player and a potential future Division I player in DeAvila, the agile Raynalso Jean-Pierre, the ultra-fast Edison Rios, the defensive stalwart Brian Parra, Julio Rios and his powerful right leg, Cooper Sumpter (who hadn’t played soccer since he was in elementary school before becoming the starting goalkeeper) and many others.
“This is a dream come true for high school students and athletes going to the state semifinals,” DeAvila said. “Traveling and doing it for your school is exciting.”
A tumultuous first year eventually led to the best year in program history for Rodriguez. His players bought into his philosophy – working hard in the weight room and in practice to win championships.
Rodriguez said Corrie didn’t agree with his decisions to cut the seniors three years ago. But the coach always had Corrie’s support. And with the support from Corrie, the fans and his players, Rodriguez has a chance to do something special.
He’s already helped build the Falcons into a powerhouse, guiding them to their best three-year run (2016-18) in program history. Rodriguez now can do something no coach in any sport has done at Van Horn – win a state title. The 1983 boys basketball team came the closest, taking second.
“We’ve always had a vision of success for the program,” Corrie said. “We had high expectations for them. This is a real special moment. We worked really hard. Coach Rodriguez has done a great job taking the program to greater and greater heights.”
– Michael Smith is assistant sports editor of The Examiner. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 816-350-6317. Follow him on Twitter: @MsmithEJC