Graduate midfielder Mara Rodriquez dribbles past freshman midfielder Ali Pennella during a game against Brandeis University (Mass.) on Oct. 20. Emory won 1-0. (Natalie Sandlow/Staff Photographer)

For graduate midfielder Mara Rodriguez, it didn’t happen overnight.

It all began with her mother, a former collegiate soccer player, teaching her the basics like “learning how to walk with a ball” at 4 years old. Rodriguez first played on a small hometown team her mother coached, which “sparked [her] love” for the sport.

“I obviously look up to her so much,” Rodriguez said. “So having her introduce the sport to me set it apart from other sports I tried and grew that connection.”

Rodriguez continued playing soccer throughout her childhood, eventually verbally committing to West Virginia University (WVU) in eighth grade. While she wasn’t set on a major, she was drawn to WVU’s soccer program, which had just come off a deep NCAA Division I Women’s Soccer Championship run in 2016. Rodriguez was so excited to join the team that she graduated high school half a year early to practice with the team in the spring before her freshman year.

When she arrived at WVU, Rodriguez worked hard to get “her feet settled” and “set some mini goals” for herself as the youngest on the team in an intense environment. Even though she loved the program and the coaching environment, Rodriguez realized she wanted to attend a school that was more challenging on the academic side. As a result, she transferred to Providence College (R.I.) for her sophomore year.

“I love the ocean, I love the water, so ultimately that led [to] my decision to go to Providence where, academically, it hit all my criteria,” Rodriguez said. “Obviously, it was still at a very, very high level — being in the Big East Conference, playing teams that go to the NCAA tournament every year — so I knew I was still going to be playing soccer at that highest level.”

Rodriguez still has fond memories of her time at Providence College and developed close friendships with her teammates.

“I absolutely loved it,” Rodriguez said. “The girls are still all of my best friends … I still have some friends on the team that are in their senior year now, so it’s crazy to watch them be seniors when they were freshmen when I knew them.”

Over the course of her high school and collegiate careers, the El Salvador women’s national football team continued to recruit Rodriguez. It started when her club coach, who knew she was a dual United States and El Salvador citizen, called a scout from the national team to come observe some of her games while she was in high school. From there, the team invited Rodriguez to their youth camp for the U-15, U-17, U-19 and U-20 levels. Rodriguez eventually made the senior level of the El Salvadoran national team roster in 2023, despite tearing her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) during her senior year at Providence College.

“It was crazy because my first camp was my very first time back after tearing my ACL,” she said. “And then my first game back was my first full national team game with the full team against Belize. So that was an incredible experience, and I’m so grateful that everything worked out as best as I could have imagined and prayed for.”

Rodriguez represented El Salvador at the 2022 CONCACAF Tournament Qualifiers, where she scored three goals in a game against Belize. As one of the younger players on the roster, Rodriguez said she was focusing on going in as humble as she could be.

“If [I] played the U.S., I would have played Alex Morgan at the time or Carli Lloyd, so it was pretty crazy,” Rodriguez said. “I felt so privileged to be there. I was so grateful for the opportunity.”

After graduating from Providence College, Rodriguez made her way to Emory University to pursue a master’s degree at the Rollins School of Public Health. Because of her ACL injury and the COVID-19 pandemic, she still had two years of competition eligibility and explored different options for graduate school, including Emory.

Rodriguez said that Emory “checked both of those boxes” in terms of its academic offerings and highly-competitive soccer program. The location was also a plus for her, with the warm weather being a welcome change from the Northeast.

A visit with Women’s Soccer Head Coach Sue Patberg and an opportunity to work with Assistant Coach Catherine Whitehill helped Rodriguez make the decision to come to Emory.

“She had other opportunities and other great schools that wanted her to go there and play,” Patberg said. “We just happened to be incredibly fortunate to be on the receiving end of Mara joining us.”

Rodriguez has had a great career so far at Emory, starting in all 19 games in the 2022 season, winning a 2022 All-UAA honorable mention and scoring a hat trick in an away game on Sept. 23, 2022 against Maryville College (Tenn.).

She also played in all 16 games this season for Emory and is one of the team’s captains. Patberg referred to Rodriguez as a “strong leader.”

“She never really gets panicked,” Patberg said. “She doesn’t get overly emotional or overly frustrated where it takes her out of her ability to perform. She really can stay engaged in the game.”

Patberg added that Rodriguez is “an encourager” who helps her teammates “to perform at their best.” Rodriguez dominates both ends of the field defensively and creates scoring chances for both herself and her teammates. Graduate forward Kylie Hall echoed Patberg’s sentiments.

“If you lose the ball, she’s the one to be like, ‘It’s alright. Snap out of it,’ which is a great leadership quality as well,” Hall said. “I think she’s just a great leader by example because she’s always going to go 100%.”

Hall said she instantly became friends with Rodriguez because of her great qualities as a person.

“I just fell in love with her personality on and off the field,” Hall said. “She’s very humble. She’s really, really selfless. She also is such a hard worker.”

Rodriguez has “superstitious” pre-game rituals that all her teammates make fun of her about.

“I always go to [Goldbergs Fine Foods] before every game and get a bagel,” Rodriguez said. “And then in the locker rooms, I always put my right cleat on before my left and my right shin guards on before my left shin guards.”

Thanks to Goldbergs Fine Foods — or rather, her dedication and hard work — Rodriguez has had immense success in the realm of women’s soccer at Emory and beyond.

“She’s always making sure that everyone’s happy and that everyone feels confident,” Hall said. “She’s an amazing leader and teammate.”

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Jack Rutherford (27C) is a News Editor at the Emory Wheel. He is from Louisville, Kentucky, majoring in Economics on a pre-law track. When not writing for the Wheel, he can normally be found with the Emory Rowing team or at a Schwartz Center performance. In his free time, Rutherford enjoys listening to classical music or opera, or is out walking in Lullwater.