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Former Kadena senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez will now be blocking shots for the Wildcats of Clovis High School in New Mexico. She transferred to nearby Cannon Air Force Base last weekend.

Former Kadena senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez will now be blocking shots for the Wildcats of Clovis High School in New Mexico. She transferred to nearby Cannon Air Force Base last weekend. (Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes)

Former Kadena senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez will now be blocking shots for the Wildcats of Clovis High School in New Mexico. She transferred to nearby Cannon Air Force Base last weekend.

Former Kadena senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez will now be blocking shots for the Wildcats of Clovis High School in New Mexico. She transferred to nearby Cannon Air Force Base last weekend. (Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes)

Former Kadena senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez, with her coach Kelli Wilson prior to Rodriguez's last match in Kadena uniform on Thursday. The Panthers lost to Kubasaki in straight sets. Rodriguez transferred two days later to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and will now play for Clovis High School's Wildcats.

Former Kadena senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez, with her coach Kelli Wilson prior to Rodriguez's last match in Kadena uniform on Thursday. The Panthers lost to Kubasaki in straight sets. Rodriguez transferred two days later to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and will now play for Clovis High School's Wildcats. (Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes)

Former Kadena senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez shares an emotional moment with her coach Kelli Wilson prior to Rodriguez's last match in Kadena uniform on Thursday. The Panthers lost to Kubasaki in straight sets. Rodriguez transferred two days later to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and will now play for Clovis High School's Wildcats.

Former Kadena senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez shares an emotional moment with her coach Kelli Wilson prior to Rodriguez's last match in Kadena uniform on Thursday. The Panthers lost to Kubasaki in straight sets. Rodriguez transferred two days later to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and will now play for Clovis High School's Wildcats. (Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes)

Former Kadena Panthers senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez shares a group moment with her old teammates before Rodriguez's last match in Kadena uniform on Thursday. The Panthers lost to Kubasaki in straight sets. Rodriguez transferred two days later to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and will now play for Clovis High School's Wildcats.

Former Kadena Panthers senior middle blocker Nia Rodriguez shares a group moment with her old teammates before Rodriguez's last match in Kadena uniform on Thursday. The Panthers lost to Kubasaki in straight sets. Rodriguez transferred two days later to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M., and will now play for Clovis High School's Wildcats. (Dave Ornauer/Stars and Stripes)

CAMP FOSTER, Okinawa – She knew this summer that she would be leaving Kadena and her beloved Panthers volleyball and softball teams. With the latter, she’d won two Far East Division I titles, while the former finished last in the 2012 Far East tournament but was showing signs of life this season.

The Panthers opened on Sept. 3 by getting their first win in four years over arch-rival Kubasaki, rallying from 2-1 down for a five-set victory. They’d followed that with a straight-set victory at Okinawa Christian School International, the first 2-0 start by the Panthers since 2004.

Then, wham. The reality of military life on the move set in for Nia Rodriguez. With a team appeared to be on the rise, the senior middle blocker had to bid farewell to her teammates as she transferred to Cannon Air Force Base, N.M. She departed Okinawa last Saturday.

Knowing ahead of time that she’d be leaving didn’t soften the blow one iota. And when asked about what it was like to leave the team at that juncture, she started crying.

“It’s hard, because I’m actually leaving,” said Rodriguez last Thursday, just before that short-lived winning streak – and her tenure as a Panther – ended with a straight-set loss at Kubasaki.

“The team is coming together, but now that I’m leaving … it’s hard, it’s really hard. I’ve been playing here for three years and look at us now. We started at the bottom and now we’re here. It’s my senior year and I really don’t want to leave Kadena, but I have to. That’s the military life.”

Teammates and coaches shared that sorrow.

“She’s going to definitely be missed, in both volleyball and softball; she’s one of my starters there, too,” said Panthers coach Kelli Wilson, referring to Rodriguez as a “player-coach” on the floor among other things she brings to the team.

“She’s been through heartbreak, so she knows what it feels like, how hard it is to come back and work hard to get to where we need to be,” Wilson said. “She’s a leader. She works with everybody. She tells them what they’re doing wrong, shows them how to fix it and does it with them.”

“Her personality and her leadership on the court, it’s brought us all together,” said Panthers setter Rachel Allison. “It’s really fun to have her and we’re going to miss her.”

Not just on a stat sheet, not just communicating, telling the players when to get on and off the net, Rodriguez brought a couple of qualities that you can’t coach, said Art Arao, who coaches the Shisa Volleyball Club to which Rodriguez belonged along with other Panthers and Dragons players.

“Nia brings the love and the heart for volleyball,” said Arao, an Okinawa “lifer” who has coached students and adults on the island for decades. “If you don’t have that, you can’t play in any sport. It’s the environment, the family, the people. You have to have that special ability.”

Losing somebody like that at midseason “hurts” team chemistry a great deal, Arao said. “Losing a player like that is hard on a team, but in some ways, it can bring a team together and make them stronger.”

Rodriguez takes with her to New Mexico “her smile, her gung-ho, her coachability, her aggressiveness; it’s a long list,” Arao said.

Both she and Wilson have their eyes on Rodriguez’s future. In advance of the move, they contacted athletics director Dale Fullerton and the volleyball coaching staff at Clovis High, near Cannon. She’s been assured a spot on the team and will suit up in time for the Wildcats in their tournaments Sept. 27-28 at Rio Rancho and Oct. 4-5 at Portales.

And they’re looking at life after high school for Rodriguez as well. Wilson has been in contact with Vernon College, a two-year school and reigning North Texas Junior College Athletic Conference. The Chaparrals went 32-7 last season and were ranked No. 15 in the NJCAA.

“Now, she’s going to the States and has a chance to play club ball and in college, hopefully,” Wilson said. “We’re going to talk to a lot of colleges and try to get her into somewhere that fits well.”

As for this season, Rodriguez says she plans to play for the Wildcats with one eye on Okinawa, confident that the Panthers can carry on.

“I know they’re going to go far, better than last year,” she said. “They’ll improve. They’re improving now, but they’ll get better.”

“We’re definitely going to try to uphold it without her,” Allison said.

“She’s really a great player and a great person and she’ll do well wherever she goes,” Wilson said.

ornauer.dave@stripes.com

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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