Orlando Rodriguez has been involved in the game of baseball since he was in a crib.
“My mom said ever since I was a baby, I would use my bottle as a bat,” Rodriguez said.
His older brother and sister loved the game as well, and he would always choose playing outside with them than being inside.
“At times, I was trying to find my way in on a game my brother was playing with his teammates either in the front yard or the school next door,” Rodriguez said. “Every time I step onto a field as a player or coach, it reminds me of those times when I was young trying to live up to their expectations and being as competitive as they were.”
Rodriguez carried his competitive love for baseball throughout high school, college, and all the way to coaching where he currently leads the Willow Canyon Wildcats in Surprise, Arizona.
The Wildcats went a combined 80-129 from 2010-2017, which is when Rodriguez stepped into the dugout. He then led the team to a 29-16 record over the next two seasons and made the playoffs both times.
His first year with the Wildcats marked the first time that the program had made the playoffs since 2007, and his team was also the first in program history to make back-to-back playoff appearances in 2019.
Rodriguez was named Coach of the Year after his first season with Willow Canyon, and was the first in program history to earn the award.
But before his current stint with the Wildcats started, Rodriguez was living in New Mexico. He wrapped up his playing career in 2006 at New Mexico State, and then made his way to Arizona
“A good buddy of mine was moving to Phoenix and knew I wanted to come up here,” Rodriguez said. “The coach at his high school was interested in having an assistant coach, so I spoke with him and had an interview.”
That school was Cooper Canyon in Glendale, Arizona.
After getting the assistant coaching job in October of 2006, Rodriguez went a combined 75-33 on the JV and Varsity teams.
He then took a trip to Peoria, Arizona and was the assistant baseball coach for the Liberty High School Lions.
He coached under John Freitas, who coached USA baseball and in the Minor Leagues.
“I learned a lot from John Freitas. I got to see what it takes to be a successful program and build a family culture,” Rodriguez said. “Once I got the head job at Willow, that’s what I wanted to do there.”
Rodriguez went a total 62-35 with Liberty, which included finishing Top-5 in the State in 2014, and the State runner-up in 2015.
Then, he got the job at Willow Canyon in 2017.
But also a few years ago, Rodriguez was selected to represent the USA National 12U Southwest Team in Cary, North Carolina. Players got selected to play in front of the main scouts for USA Baseball, and Rodriguez was the head coach for this team.
“It was an awesome week and a great time with those guys,” Rodriguez said.
Around the same time, after finishing his 2016 season with the Lions, a coach from Liberty that had moved on to Willow Canyon told Rodriguez that he had all that it took to change the program around.
He had an interview and said what he wanted to do and how he wanted to get it done.
“They always had a lot of talent and never put it together,” Rodriguez said. “I knew I was the right guy to put it together.”
In his first season, the Wildcats went 12-5, which included going on an 11-game winning streak that powered them to the playoffs where they lost in the Region Championship to his old team, Liberty.
When Rodriguez made his coaching debut with Willow Canyon, his family surprised him by driving up from New Mexico to support him. They were also joined by his wife and her family.
“I’m blessed to have my parents support me in the stands when I was a player and even now as a coach,” Rodriguez said.
And in his second season, he and Willow Canyon finished 14-9 and fell in the playoffs.
The Wildcats then began the 2020 season at 3-1, and were beating teams by double-digit numbers before the coronavirus outbreak put a screeching halt to it.
Rodriguez had to tell his 11 seniors on Monday the heartbreaking news over the phone.
“I always thought cut day was the hardest day,” Rodriguez said. “But to tell my seniors it’s officially over was tough.”
Now, he and the team will await their opportunity to resume practices and prepare for the 2021 season, where they can further turn the program around.
And with a coach who loves the sport and his job, the Wildcats have the right man to get it done.
“I am truly blessed to wake up everyday and live my dream,” Rodriguez said.