CRANBURY: Rodriguez succeeds Hand as head coach

Cranbury product takes over PHS girls soccer

By Justin Feil, The Packet Group
   Val Rodriguez never looked anywhere else when she considered a head coaching job.
   The Princeton High School graduate got the one that she had been waiting for when girls soccer coach Greg Hand retired, and she moved up from his assistant the past six years to her dream job.
   ”I never looked around,” said Rodriguez, nee Val Davison when she played at PHS while growing up in Cranbury. “Princeton is my home. Once I started my career here, I wasn’t going to change where I coach.”
   Rodriguez had only left PHS briefly, for four years when she played for Richard Stockton College. Rodriguez was a first-team All-New Jersey Athletic Conference selection as a senior. She was named all-conference in each of her four years and helped Stockton grow. After graduation from Stockton, she returned to PHS to teach math and coach soccer. She has also coached basketball and lacrosse, but she will stick solely to soccer while juggling duties as a teacher and the mother to an almost 2-year-old son at home.
   ”I knew I always wanted soccer in my life,” Rodriguez said. “Once your college career is over, you have to find ways to stay in it — like women’s leagues. It can only take you so far. I knew coaching was a part of me.”
   Rodriguez has been an assistant to Hand for six years. She had played four years for him as sweeper for some of the best teams in PHS history, and she recalls fondly those years. It also gives her a special bond to her Little Tigers.
   ”You laid a foundation at some point,” Rodriguez said. “The four years that I was there, we were a very good team. We still hold the best record for the school, 17-2-1, which was the ‘01 team. We talk about a lot of those games. When you come up to your rivals, that feeling doesn’t go away. You get to share that feeling.”
   Rodriguez is invested in keeping PHS successful. She wants to see the program remain among the best in Mercer County and a consistent contender at the Group III state level. She is looking to maintain that aspect as she takes over for Hand.
   ”Just the winning tradition and the work ethic,” Rodriguez said. “Every year, even if we don’t have top notch players, we have players that strive to keep getting better.”
   She has been delighted by the early returns. The Little Tigers did well in a pre-season tournament hosted at Stockton and the transition to her, JV coach Eva Gimello and varsity assistant Kori Washington as a coaching team has been seamless.
   ”We are maybe a little more hands on,” Rodriguez said. “We have a group of three girls, relatively recent out of college. As far as coaching philosophy and outlook on the team, we’re maintaining a similar style.”
   Rodriguez learned plenty from watching how Hand handled the team. She enjoyed playing for him, and coaching with him helped to prepare her to take over.
   ”The managing skills that he has, it definitely has a huge impact on me,” Rodriguez said. “Coming in as a college soccer player, I had some of the knowledge and hunger to be a coach, but there’s so much behind the scenes — talking to kids, talking to parents, those are the skills that you don’t see. He was always perfectly put together.”
   After six years as an assistant, Rodriguez felt ready to move up to the head coaching job. She doesn’t feel any extra pressure to follow her mentor, who had been a well respected coach.
   ”He laid a good path for me,” Rodriguez said. “I’m not nervous following his footsteps. He was great making it a team approach. I feel I was able to step right in.”
   Coming from playing at PHS and coaching there gives her an advantage over outside coaches. There hasn’t been much adjustment for either her or the players.
   ”It’s huge,” Rodriguez said. “They already have that respect for me. We already have the chemistry built. I teach at the high school. I live in the community. It all melts together.”
   Rodriguez is hoping to establish the same core approach that has been emphasized in previous PHS teams. The Little Tigers are working at developing the same traits that have made them consistently good.
   ”Connectedness is No. 1,” Rodriguez said. “We want to always maintain our shape offensively and defensively, and find each other at our feet. We have to play as a unit. We’re sitting very nicely right now.”
   Helping her get that point across are two assistant coaches who are also on board with building the program. Washington, a Pennington School product, returns to PHS after helping for a year at Rutgers, and Gimello played collegiately at The College of New Jersey. Their experiences are brought together at PHS.
   ”We have a similar competitive mentality,” Rodriguez said, “and we each bring a different piece to the puzzle — defensive, conditioning, attacking.”
   As a player just over a decade earlier, Rodriguez was a leader out of the back for some of the best Little Tiger teams to take to the pitch. In college, she moved to center midfield and was the center of the action for an emerging Stockton side. After preparing and helping to mold her alma mater as an assistant to Hand, Val Rodriguez is looking forward to her chance to be back in the center as she leads the only program that she has ever considered.
   ”Of course it’s my dream job,” Rodriguez said. “Playing here, coaching here for six years. I knew at some point the position had to open. It was a great six years with him.”