Amber Rodriguez played softball for New Life Academy in the program’s heyday.
The Woodbury school reached the state tournament a record 10 straight times from 2006 to 2015. The Eagles won five state titles in that span, the last coming in 2015 — Rodriguez’s senior year.
But then her strong class graduated, legendary coach Mick Ramey retired and softball started to die out at the school.
The Eagles’ last year with a softball program was 2017 — until this spring.
New Life Academy softball is back. The Eagles — who are on pause this week while a couple players are either injured or are in quarantine — have played two games and are 2-0.
“I’m really enjoying being able to get to know just some girls that I wouldn’t necessarily see in classes and things, and some of the underclassmen, as well,” sophomore third baseman Abby Peterson said. “(We’re) getting to build up a strong program for the years to come, because we still are a younger team, but I’m really excited to see where we can go with it and grow as a whole team.”
The head coach leading the charge? Amber Rodriguez.
Rodriguez returned to New Life Academy to teach and was approached about a potential softball resuscitation. She played in the program and knew its tradition. Who better to lead the team back onto the field?
This is her first coaching experience. She’s running the program with her father, Mike Rodriguez, who coached her growing up and used to coach in New Life’s baseball program.
Rodriguez would have tried to field a team in 2020, but there was no season due to COVID-19. But she was already recruiting students from the school to come out for the team. The program was able to have a few practices last summer, and Rodriguez would encourage any interested players to bring a friend. New Life Academy has 10 players on the roster. As a teacher at the school, Rodriguez said she was able to pester girls in her class every day.
“Like, ‘You should do softball! You should do softball! You should do softball!’ ” Rodriguez said with a laugh. “A lot of it, I think, came down to the girls and getting their friends to come along. Some girls who have never played before or have only played once but are like, ‘Oh, you guys are doing that? Sure, I’ll give it a try.’ Then just making practice fun.”
One of those newcomers is junior right fielder Lydia Rossmiller. She is surprised the Eagles are 2-0. They are literally learning on the fly. Rodriguez said she was instructing players how to steal a base during the game. Sophomore pitcher Samantha Hansen — one of the few veteran players on the roster — said her teammates learned how to get on base via dropped third strikes in their last game.
“Being able to come back and see some new faces as well as old faces, and not being judged for not having amazing skills, they’re welcoming all levels of skill,” Peterson said. “It’s really just an encouraging environment. Having different ages, different skills, you just feel really welcome. Practice, it’s just a safe space to make mistakes and grow, so I think it’s really nice to have that opportunity to have fun while we’re getting better and learning from each other, too.”
Reminders of the program’s tradition are present at the school. Rodriguez will walk by the school’s program case and note the high volume of softball trophies.
“We’re in there a lot,” she said. “Some of them might not realize how cool it is to bring that back, because I’ve had other teachers, parents, staff at the school that are like, ‘Oh my gosh, softball is back!’ ”
Hansen has experienced that firsthand. Her Spanish teacher, Sylvia Stubbs, is always asking how the team is doing or what it’s working on at practice.
“She’s just so excited that we’re back,” Hansen said, “and I think that’s really cool that we have teachers that are so invested that they ask you about it every day.”
Hansen played in New Life’s middle school program for years, but she’d accepted in recent years that any varsity softball experience would likely have to be in a co-op.
She didn’t think this was a possibility.
Rodriguez valued her New Life softball experience as a player, from playing the sport to building relationships with her teammates to bringing glory to God. Thus far, her players are having a similar experience
“A lot of it is just … your attitude within the team and how you interact with the other girls, just making sure that you’re being encouraging and uplifting and establishing those relationships before making sure that you’re amazing at every skill,” Rossmiller said. “It’s been really cool to see each person grow in their personality, and also in their skills.”