Patience pays off for New Mexico

In an often grumbling world, want to hear about someone with an abundance of gratitude? Meet Victor Rodriguez, goalkeeper for the No. 1-ranked New Mexico men's soccer team.

He redshirted his first year at the school and played sparingly his freshman and sophomore seasons. There were times, he admitted, he felt discouraged spending three years mostly watching other guys play.

But Rodriguez stuck with it. He used that time to study the sport. Every chance he did get in goal -- four games over his first two years -- he tried to make the most of it.

Now as a junior who has started all 18 games and surrendered just nine goals for a team that is 16-0-2 and ranked No. 1 in the country, Rodriguez isn't patting himself on the back. He's giving credit to everyone who inspired him during the tough times.

"My family, friends, teammates, coaches and my girlfriend," Rodriguez said. "She really made a big difference in my life as one of the people who helped me stay focused throughout those three years."

His girlfriend, Stephanie Kean, knew that Rodriguez occasionally just needed doses of reassurance.

"I'd get home from a hard practice and she'd tell me I was going to get my chance, to stay positive, to just follow my dream and what I wanted to do," he said. "I listened to her. And I am thankful I did, or maybe I wouldn't be in this position I'm in now. She would cheer me up when I was having one of those moments like, 'What am I doing?'"

Rodriguez is one of nine Lobos named Wednesday to the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation all-conference teams. That includes first-teamers Blake Smith and Lance Rozeboom at midfielder, forward Devon Sandoval, and defender Kyle Venter. Rodriguez is on the second team.

New Mexico's Jeremy Fishbein was selected MPSF Coach of the Year as his Lobos head into the conference tournament Friday in Denver. On Monday, Division I men's soccer will unveil its 48-team NCAA tournament field. The Lobos are poised to get a first-round bye and hope to host their opening game after completing the second unbeaten regular season in school history.

"There are certain teams that really have a home-field advantage," Fishbein said. "That's where I think it's so important with the seedings. Creighton, for example, is extremely good at home. You don't want to go play there. Or at UConn. Or Maryland. There are just places that make it difficult on you. And I think it's the same here. Teams don't want to play here."

The altitude is one factor. But there's also the crowd support. And the Lobos have such a multidimensional attack that they are a handful no matter where they're playing.

New Mexico, in Fishbein's 10th season as coach, will be making its eighth NCAA tournament appearance. The Lobos have advanced as far as the national championship game in 2005, losing to Maryland, 1-0.

Fishbein doesn't see this year's team as similar in makeup to the 2005 team, although he'd love to see these Lobos get at least as far.

"That team kind of relied on one guy to score," he said of Jeff Rowland, who had 16 goals in 2005. "This season, we've got a pretty balanced team. The other thing is that we had a lot more senior leadership in the past. This year, we've got two seniors. Out of 23 guys on our roster, 12 are freshmen eligibility-wise.

"So it's still a young team in a lot of ways. But we've got a lot of weapons, and I'm really proud of them defensively, too. The guys have been really solid."

Seven New Mexico players have scored at least three goals, led by Smith with nine and Sandoval with seven. Anchoring the defense in goal has been the 6-foot-2 Rodriguez, who has played all but 44 minutes this season.

"Vic is a class act," Fishbein said. "I'm sure in the past, he felt he should be playing more. But at the same time, he's always been about the team. He believed in the decisions made by the coaching staff."

That staff now includes Savva Biller, who joined the Lobos as a volunteer assistant in the spring and has 10 years of pro playing experience.

"He's the best goalie coach I've ever been associated with," Fishbein said. "I think he's given Victor and our other goalkeepers a different sense of understanding things and, most importantly, more confidence."

Rodriguez is from Los Cruces, N.M., and is one of 10 players from New Mexico on the Lobos' roster. He was born in Mexico but moved with his family to the United States when he was 6.

"It was a big change; being a little kid, I didn't speak English yet," said Rodriguez. "But I'm glad we came here. The thing is, growing up, baseball was what I loved. Every Christmas, I'd get a ball or bat or glove.

"Then around eighth grade, I wanted to try football, but my mom thought it was too dangerous. So instead, I went with a friend to try out for a soccer team, just to do it. But I stayed with it and found out I loved that. I'm glad I listened to my parents."

He started as a midfielder. His first experience in goal wasn't so great.

"The other team hammered us; we lost like 7-0," he said, chuckling. "I could have said, 'I can't deal with this.' But as the games went on, I loved that pressure [to stop shots.] It was what I wanted to do."

Rodriguez said that the players who grew up in New Mexico have a special pride in wearing a Lobos jersey.

"To have the fan base we have, not just in [Albuquerque] but throughout the state of New Mexico, it's an honor," he said. "I hope we make a difference in the community, especially with the kids."

Rodriguez was asked what advice he'd give to a young athlete who was frustrated with playing time. He said everyone deals with it differently, but that turning perceived negatives into positives was the best way to approach it.

"In my case, I knew I was getting to practice with some great players," he said. "I'm not going to lie -- there were days where it was tougher than others, wondering, 'Am I going to get that chance?' But the coaching staff kept my head up, kept me involved in the game.

"It was a learning experience for me that made me want to work all that much harder. The coaches told me, 'When you get the chance, we want you to be ready to do the job.' I'm thankful that I'm here."

Mechelle Voepel is a columnist for ESPN.com. She can be reached at mvoepel123@yahoo.com.

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