- Graham Hays, espnW.com
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NEWTON, Mass. -- As her senior season at Florida State enters its final months, Leonor Rodriguez has figured out quite a bit about a country she never set foot in before she showed up in Tallahassee as a freshman.
But on a recent road trip to Boston College she found herself once again flummoxed. The culprit proved to be hot apple cider offered to counteract the New England chill.
Hot drinks? Sure. Apple juice? Nothing strange there. (Best not to confuse matters more with the distinction between juice and cider.) Hot apple juice? That took some explaining from teammates used to playing cultural attache.
"If I didn't know something, I've never been afraid to ask," Rodriguez said. "I asked a lot of questions -- and I still do. And they still laugh at me."
It might seem at first glance as if one of the season's biggest surprises came out of nowhere to emerge as one of the best players in the ACC. But for someone who crossed an ocean just to get to Florida State four years ago, a senior season to remember turns out to be one more leg of a long journey.
Rodriguez comes from a place people dream of visiting for a few days' respite from the real world. Where she grew up, others hope they might someday soak up the sun in retirement. So frankly, it's a little surprising to sit across from her in a hotel lobby on a wet winter night near Boston and find that there is nowhere she would rather be than where she is, with three years worth of waiting and working behind her to prove her point.
Part of Spain, the Canary Islands that Rodriguez calls home are a group of seven islands that together form one of the country's 17 autonomous regions, loosely similar to American states. The islands are considerably closer to the coast of Western Sahara and Morocco than they are to Spain, sitting less than 100 miles off the African mainland. That lends the islands the climate and geography that make them a European vacation destination akin to Hawaii.
"It's kind of like a paradise," Rodriguez said. "It's between 60 and 80 [degrees] year round. You have beaches on the coast, mountains -- you have everything. It's like a little paradise that has everything in one."
It's also where she started playing the sport, at first just tagging along with an older sister to a basketball club on her island of Gran Canaria. When she was young, she played to be among her friends, but as they got older and drifted away from sports to prepare for university in a European model in which the two are less easily intermingled, she wanted both. The teen with the flashy handle on the court who always seemed to be studying when she was off the court charmed Brooke Wyckoff, an American playing professionally for the senior club. When the latter's former college coach, Sue Semrau, visited the Canary Islands, Wyckoff told her there was a girl who might be the real deal.
Semrau never had an opportunity to see her play in person, but on the strength of the recommendation and Rodriguez's record in the Spanish youth national system, she offered her a scholarship.
And so amidst all the vacationers arriving in paradise, Rodriguez caught an outbound flight for the panhandle of Florida -- thinking she would find the state's famed beaches when she arrived.
It was a challenge from the start. She had to sit out the first nine games of her freshman season because she played with professional players on her club team. She struggled to adapt to the physical play in the United States, small things like getting bumped four or five times coming over a screen when any one of them would have been a foul back home. She continued to have success with the Spanish national program during the summers, playing for the under-20 team after her freshmen and sophomore seasons, but she scored a total of 45 points in her first two seasons with the Seminoles. Semrau wondered if she would be able to adapt. Rodriguez wondered if the frustration was worth it.
"For sure, and especially when I was by myself and didn't have a family here," Rodriguez said. "For sure, some days it was tough, and some days I felt like I wanted to give up, but that's not me. I believe in myself, I know what I can bring, I know what I can do. I just needed more time to work on and to adjust to this style of game.
"I think because of the past years, that's why I am where I am right now."
She got an opportunity to start 24 games last season when the Seminoles found themselves shorthanded in the backcourt. The results weren't bad. Rodriguez finished the season as the team's leader in assists and shot 38 percent from the 3-point line. But averages of 4.8 points, 2.7 assists and 2.8 rebounds on a team that finished 14-17, Florida State's first losing season in a decade, didn't mark her for stardom. Semrau assumed that with Morgan Toles healthy and supported at point guard by junior-college transfer Yashira Delgado, Alexa Deluzio would move back to off guard and Rodriguez would settle in as a role player off the bench, a quiet way to wrap up a career.
Semrau noticed when Rodriguez got off to a strong start once practice began. She noticed when it continued. And at some point in those weeks, she realize she had to change her plans. Rodriguez is one of only two Seminoles to start every game this season. No one has played more minutes. There isn't any physical change player or coaches can point to in explaining the success. What comes up again and again is confidence, a difficult commodity to quantify.
"I think that when you play with confidence and you play with what I can only describe as freedom, it makes you lighter on your feet, it makes you look quicker," said Wyckoff, who was reunited with Rodriguez when she joined the Florida State coaching staff last season. "When your mind is freed up to just play, you're able to anticipate and go get that steal. She did work, but these four years she's always worked on her body. … I think it's more of that freedom, that lightness. It's partly confidence, and when you're playing free, it translates physically."
As of Jan. 20, no guard anywhere had a better field goal percentage than Rodriguez at 51.5 percent. She's shooting 43.8 percent from the 3-point line. She leads the team and ranks third in the ACC at 16.3 points per game. Her career average until this season was 3.9 points per game. Florida State might be the only team in the NCAA with five players averaging double-digit points, but that balance fueling a 15-3 turnaround has a lot to do with one unexpected part.
"She sees things that can develop like nobody else on our team," Semrau said. "She's not reacting; she's creating. It's like a real cook versus somebody that's going off of a recipe. You put her in the kitchen and she's going to find something that makes it even better than what it said on that recipe card. That's why I think she's so much fun to watch play, and she's extremely fun to play with as a result."
Had Rodriguez closed her career in relative anonymity as a reserve, Semrau said she still would have counted the Spaniard's stay in Tallahassee a success for what she brought to the team off the court. It's a familiar line, but when it's echoed with equal passion by someone like Deluzio, it carries some weight. And the frustration of not playing much in those early years aside, Rodriguez shares the assessment of her time in Florida.
Coming to the United States made her miss home more, sure, but in her mind it also helped her understand why it mattered to her where she was from.
"Coming here has opened everything to me," Rodriguez said. "I think traveling around the world, it has opened my mind. I'm with teammates I would never have met, backgrounds I've never experienced and places I would never be. I'm pretty lucky to meet the people I've met and to consider friends here and family. … I'm really happy. I wish everyone could experience this."
That would be true even if she wasn't one of the ACC's leading scorers and the cornerstone of a team with aspirations to not just return to the NCAA tournament but make some noise in it. It's nonetheless nice to have both.
"It's blown everybody away, and it's just been what everyone wanted for Leo," Wyckoff said. "She wanted it badly enough for herself to make it happen, and the coolest thing is that everybody else wanted it for her. So that's what just makes it so amazing. No one expected it."
Which is not to say it came out of nowhere. The farther she gets on her journey, the more she understands exactly where it came from.
"I'm proud to be a Canary Island girl," Rodriguez said.