When St. Amant High volleyball star Toni Rodriguez walked on at LSU in 2014, Leonard Fournette was a Tigers’ freshman running back, Johnny Jones was the men’s basketball coach and junior All-American shortstop Alex Bregman was preparing for his last season.
This fall, Fournette starts his fourth NFL season with the Jacksonville Jaguars, Jones begins his third season as Texas Southern University head coach, and Bregman hopes his fourth full major league season as the Houston Astros third baseman finally begins after being grounded by the coronavirus pandemic.
And Rodriguez, who turns 24 in September?
She leapt at the chance to return to LSU’s beach volleyball team for an additional year of eligibility – a rare seventh year– when the NCAA restored the year for senior athletes in spring sports because coronavirus halted sports on all levels in mid-March
“It wasn’t hard because this is what we want to do,” said Rodriguez, who has earned a bachelor’s degree and is working on a second Master’s. “We want to win a national championship and we’re going to do it. I’m from Louisiana and bleed purple and gold. If I have an opportunity to play at the best school in the country, I’m going to do it with a smile and enjoy every minute of it.”
Rodriguez arrived at LSU after her plans of attending another school on scholarship were altered following a torn ACL in her left knee during his senior season at St. Amant.
With her scholarship offer revoked, Rodriguez reached out and explained her situation to LSU volleyball coach Fran Flory. She extended Rodriguez a walk-on invitation.
“She welcomed me with open arms,” said Rodriguez, a two-time Division I All-State selection and the Baton Rouge Advocate ‘Athlete of Year’ in 2013. “Going to LSU’s one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”
Following a redshirt season to recover from her knee injury, Rodriguez played in a total of 18 matches in 2015 – starting in 13 – before suffering a season-ending ACL injury in her opposite (right) knee.
Rodriguez returned to the court in 2016. She played 89 matches with 719 kills the following three seasons without injuries.
But after playing beach volleyball in the summer of 2018, she was enthralled about the prospects of joining LSU’s beach volleyball program that started the same year she enrolled.
“Before going to beach (volleyball) I was thinking about playing professionally overseas indoor,” Rodriguez said. “When I got to the beach and played that summer, I kind of fell in love with it and decided that’s where I wanted to be.”
LSU filed a petition with the NCAA to restore two years of eligibility and Rodriguez was granted a medical hardship for both, leading to her successful debut in during the 2019 beach volleyball season. She teamed with four different teammates for nine wins over ranked opponents and 21-14 overall record, including an 11-4 mark with Ashlyn Rasnick-Pope as the Tigers No. 3 doubles team.
“It’s just different,” Rodriguez said. “They’re (indoor and beach volleyball) two separate games. The skills are somewhat the same, but the game is completely different. I was an outside hitter indoor, but the one thing I like about beach is getting to touch the ball almost every time. In the sand, I’m a blocker, but I can also defend.”
Despite two knee surgeries – the second of which required a longer hospital stay because of infection in the knee – the 6-foot-1 Rodriguez remained extremely gifted to not only play above the net and hit on top of the ball with significant force, but was agile enough to be a stifling defender.
Rodriguez and Rasnick-Pope combined to go 4-0 during the Coastal Collegiate Sports Association championships where Rodriguez earned a berth on the all-tournament team.
LSU concluded a 31-8 2019 season with a 2-2 showing at the NCAA championships where the Tigers were eliminated with consecutive losses to No. 2 UCLA (3-0) and No. 1 USC (3-2).
That set the stage for what was expected to be a highly anticipated 2020 season in which Rodriguez was one of six seniors with national championship aspirations.
The Tigers split an early-season showdown of four matches with then-No. 1 UCLA and No. 5 Hawaii, defeating those two teams in back-to-back matches to conclude Duke Kahanamoku Beach Classic in Honolulu.
Rodriguez and Rasnick-Pope won both of their matches in three-set fashion, helping to seal LSU’s win over UCLA with a 23-21, 18-21, 15-13 victory.
LSU (12-2) left Hawaii ranked second in both the AVCA and DIG rankings but went on a tear with nine straight victories that included wins over three ranked opponents such as a memorable 3-2 home win over UCLA on Feb. 29.
During the team’s torrid stretch, Rodriguez and Rasnick-Pope overcame a three-set loss in the UCLA match to win the next six matches they were paired together. They were 10-2 when the season was unexpectedly halted.
“She’s talented and hits the ball so hard,” Rodriguez said of Rasnick-Pope. “It’s been a blessing to play together. We’ve developed our relationship as friends and getting to know each other more. That translates a lot onto the sand.”
LSU’s 5-0 win over Alabama-Birmingham on March 7 came as the nation’s No. 1 ranked team, but that turned out to be the team’s final match. The remainder of the season, which included 18 remaining matches, was cancelled because of the COVID-19 health scare.
Then, came the uncertainty during a stretch the NCAA deliberated whether to restore the eligibility of all senior athletes in spring sports. An affirmative vote took place near the end of March.
“Those two weeks of the unknown was hard and not being around the team because of the quarantine,” Rodriguez said. “I would have loved to have another year back at LSU. If I didn’t, then my time here was amazing, and the people here were amazing. I was thankful either way. But getting another year is like icing on the cake to finish out my career at LSU.”
Once the season stopped, Rodriguez said coach Russell Brock summoned his seniors to gauge their future plans. Rodriguez will return for the 2021 season along with fellow seniors along Kristen Nuss, Taryn Kloth and Claire Coppola.
“When the season was cancelled, I was obviously devasted, I thought we had something really special going,” Rodriguez said. “It’s still hard thinking about how great our season was. A few of us (seniors) looked at each other and said, `If you’re in, I’m in.’ We planned to continue playing because we want to win a national championship.”