Upon getting to Highland after spending his first two years at Camden High, junior Angelo Rodriguez said he didn’t come to the football team with any specific expectations.
After splitting time at safety, linebacker and running back while at Camden, Rodriguez didn’t necessarily have a specific high-school-level position nailed down. First and foremost, he wanted to do whatever he could to help the Tartans win on Friday nights.
“Really the only goal I had was to help the team as best I can and be a leader for my peers,” Rodriguez said. “I wanted to help us take the team as far as we can go, wherever that means I am on the field.”
In his debut as a member of the Tartans, Rodriguez registered 126 rushing yards and four rushing touchdowns in Highland’s first game of the 2021-’22 season, a 42-0 victory over Gloucester Catholic. After he followed up that performance with a five touchdown, 181 rushing yard game in a 42-14 victory over Triton the following week, it’s safe to say Rodriguez’s best way to help Highland is while starting in the backfield
Coach Brian Leary, in the midst of his seventh season at the helm for Highland, wasn’t familiar with Rodriguez before he made the transfer this past summer. With only six seniors on this year’s roster, Leary said fitting Rodriguez into the team’s chemistry wasn’t difficult, despite him being a new face who is already halfway through his high-school career.
“The majority of kids [on our roster] are exactly his age, and with how prevalent football is around this area, he already knew some of them from playing against them or with them before,” Leary said. “We have a good core of players up front that were able to open up holes for him, and he reaped the benefits of that right away. It was just something that meshed right away.”
Leary said he was comfortable going into the season with the amount of talent — both along the offensive line and at the other skill positions on offense — that surrounded Rodriguez, showing promise for a bounce back season after the Tartans went an uncharacteristic 2-5 last season.
But it wasn’t until a scrimmage before the start of the season that Leary and the coaching staff really understood what Rodriguez was capable of.
“We knew he was going to be a tough runner for us and we knew we had talent around him to kind of boost that a little bit, but when we played our scrimmages, he kind of showed a second gear that we weren’t so sure was there until then,” Leary said.
“He broke a couple of long runs for us, and that may have been the eye-opening moment where we realized he can both get some tough yards, but also break a few long runs out there as well.”
After getting the news that he would be the lead back to start the season, Rodriguez said he went out with the mentality that he still had something to prove and wanted to take advantage of the opportunity that finally came his way.
“When they told me I would be the one starting out there, I told myself that I had to show them something,” Rodriguez said. “I was so happy that I was finally getting my shot, and I want to do whatever I can with it in these last two years I have left … I’ve got to make the most out of them.”
With 11 rushing touchdowns through Highland’s first three games of the season, Rodriguez is among the state leaders in the category.
A 2-1 start to the season for Highland has the program seemingly back on the same path it was under Leary before last season, when a COVID-shortened season hurt so many programs across the state and country. Many teams, such as Leary’s, found it difficult to prepare for a season in such a short amount of time with limited practice before the season.
“I do think it’s a little bit of a bounce back year for us to be honest,” Leary said. “We have some really talented kids at Highland and they really work hard, but I do attribute last year’s record to the fact that we didn’t have that time together before the season, with so many new faces, to adequately prepare. Not to make excuses, but that definitely hindered us a little bit … It was difficult to compete with the schedule we had.
“But looking at this year, it gives our kids the opportunity to have learned from last year and work hard to make it a better season for us,” the coach added.