One attending the CHSAA State Volleyball Championships last week probably couldn’t find a more inspiring story, in any classification, than that of the Dolores middle hitter wearing No. 8 on her uniform.
“I’ve been seeing action for a few months now, just light stuff. But I wasn’t actually ‘cleared’ to play until last week for regionals, so ... just in time for State!” laughed Madison Rodriguez. “It’s awesome.”
Much more incredible than that was the fact that despite still being unable to jump or dive fully, Rodriguez saw court time – and not in any token snippets afforded her by head coach Gina Hollen just for being a senior. No, Rodriguez was inserted to play, subject to being targeted by opponents just like any reserve ... on a comeback from an off-season cancer diagnosis.
“It’s myxopapillary ependymoma, which is just kind of a brain tumor in the spinal cord,” she said, discussing a situation which led her to undergo surgery on July 15 and thus miss most of her final prep season.
“It was a sucky situation,” Hollen said, “but she’s an awesome kid. She definitely has come a long way, and I can’t help but get emotional talking about her.”
Initially able to only stand with and support her fellow Lady Bears during player introductions through the 2019 campaign’s opening weeks, Rodriguez eventually received cameo-style minutes off the bench as time went on, but obviously wasn’t expected to perform at anything close to varsity level.
She wasn’t about to let anything stop her from producing whatever she could on the biggest stage, though, including a motivating kill shot early in Game 4 of what ended up being a 25-21, 21-25, 20-25, 20-25 loss to Fowler – which had led Game 3 start to finish – in the tournament’s opening Day 1 match.
Of course, there were instances where her time away from the sport was exposed – a double-contact infraction while attempting a set against FHS, and a lost joust at the net against Kremmling West Grand’s Madelyn Probst in a Day 2 defeat because of a decreased vertical leap – but it was clear she cherished every second spent with friends in the fray.
“With the thought of, ‘Maybe I still have cancer ... something that’s not going to go away easy,’” said Hollen, “I think she just kind of said in her head, ‘This is the end of my career? Whatever!’ And played her heart out.”
“It all happened this year,” Rodriguez said in disbelief. “But I’m officially cancer-free as of last week. And (now) state volleyball? It’s crazy to think about. To be out there playing ... it’s kind of a success story. It’s just amazing.”
That story truly became a nonfiction work in early October – when, fittingly, teams statewide were beginning to play their various cancer-awareness (Rodriguez indicated a hope of being a real-life beacon) matches – with DHS prepping to host 2A/1A San Juan Basin League rivals Ignacio for a Senior Night already unique in its much-advanced calendar position.
“Homecoming Week hit, and she was kind of doing a little bit of practice,” Hollen said, “but really not a whole lot. Then the week after, we had our Senior Night, and I said, ‘Hey, it’s Senior Night. I said, ‘Take it from someone who didn’t get to finish their senior year, I don’t want you to have that regret. What are your thoughts on playing one rotation, in the front row? You don’t have to move a whole lot.’
“I said, ‘I don’t even care if you jump. Balls drop in front of you? I don’t care,’” Hollen continued. “I wanted her playing, not having that regret of not being able to play on Senior Night. She got in ... toward the end of the match, and she actually got a kill! Her parents just lost it at that point, and she kind of realized, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ So she started pushing a little bit at practice, doing things here and there.
“She was at every practice,” the skipper emphasized, “not really sure if she was going to see any playing time when she started, but she said, ‘I still want to be part of the team.’ And I said, ‘Maddie, whatever you need ... we want you to be here. You’re just as important; this is your team, too!’”
“Everyone has grown and improved, and it shows in the way they play, the way that they put in so much effort,” said Rodriguez, whose active presence at state carried extra weight as she indirectly represented senior defensive specialist Jessica Lopez, benched by injury and on crutches.
“It’s so amazing to be ... with everyone, get the opportunity to play with them.”
“Obviously, winning at state would have been different, but I couldn’t have asked for the girls to play any better,” Hollen said. “Deep down, we weren’t really sure we’d get that far, but it was good to get the younger girls that experience, and to be able to finish out with our seniors (Rodriguez, Lopez, middle Jordan Elder) at that level, too.”