In Danielle Rodriguez’s first season at Utah, she started 35 games at point guard for a veteran team that made it to the WNIT championship game. Rodriguez remembers a frequent refrain from the coaching staff during that debut campaign:
You’re not a freshman anymore.
If you’re going to run point, you need to play like you’re older. Hardwood adage, old as peach buckets in a Springfield, MA, gym. “There was a lot of pressure, but it helped me build the skills you need to play at this level,” Rodriguez says over the phone on a morning in late July. “It’s made it so much easier for me today.”
One game from that season now shines with particular resonance.
In the WNIT third round, the Utes hosted the University of Pacific, and escaped with a 60-55 overtime win. This past April, Lynne Roberts, the coach of those Tigers, was named the fifth coach in Utah women’s basketball history.
When she is asked about that game, Roberts remembers the 49 points and 32 rebounds produced by Utes forwards Michelle Plouffe and Taryn Wicijowski. She can still provide a vivid rundown of the final moments.
“We had a two-point lead with the ball and 10 seconds to go in regulation. They foul our best shooter, and she goes to shoot two at the line. I’m thinking we’ll win. Then she misses the front end, but she hits the second and we’re up by three. Utah is out of timeouts, and they had one play for late-game situations. We’d gone over it, we knew to switch out on Plouffe, but we didn’t switch, and she hit the three to send it to OT. The rest is history. To say that game still bugs me is an understatement.”
Rodriguez recalls the pace and the fury of a top-tier Division I playoff setting. Little scuffles, non-stop effort. “The one thing I took away [from playing a Lynne Roberts-coached team] is that these girls work hard. Her team had a lot of fight,” says Rodriguez.
The 5-10 incoming senior point guard now has 95 starts under her belt. This past season, she once more flexed her all-purpose brand of production, averaging 8.6 points, 3.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds and shades under a block—and over a steal—per game. Her 316 assists currently rank 10th all time in program history.
Speaking of history. Utah is one of the proudest women’s basketball programs in the country. Despite a 21-40 record these past two injury-scuppered seasons, the Utes’ all-time record rests at 846-385 (.687). It’s a big reason Roberts picked this place. She knows the potential, and she believes in the talent on hand.
Beginning with a talented point guard who simply can’t stop moving.
It’s a whirlwind.
That’s the phrase Roberts has settled upon when asked to describe this summer to date. (She’s been asked it a lot.) “This is the third time I’ve done this, taking over a program,” she says, referring to her stints at Chico State and Pacific. “When I got to Pacific, our RPI was 342 out of 346 teams in DI. It had been at the bottom for a long time. This is a much better situation, coming in, than it was at Pacific, but we’ll use the same approach to build.”
At Chico State, her first head coaching job, Roberts led the Wildcats to the postseason in each of her four seasons. Her final campaign, they went to the DII Final Four. Upon hiring her to Pacific, then-athletic director Lynn King hailed her as a program builder who practiced an exciting brand of basketball. Those words proved prescient. In her final four seasons at Pacific, Roberts’s teams won 84 games and punched consecutive post-season tickets.
In the returning Utah players, Roberts sensed a group tired of an ongoing narrative they can’t seem to shake. Following the promise of ‘12-13, injuries have continued to puncture hope. After Wicijowski was sidelined for ‘13-14, five key contributors missed extended lengths of time this past campaign. In early April, head coach Anthony Levrets was let go.
That was a difficult decision to take. Rodriguez had formed strong relationships with each of the departed coaches. During her final year of high school, someone would check in at least once a week to catch up. It had been Rodriguez’s dream to play in the Pac-12, but during recruiting, she learned she was the second or third option at point guard on many schools’ lists. Levrets told her from the outset that she was their first pick at point.
“It was really tough to say goodbye,” says Rodriguez, “but they say change is good, and as tough as it is, I’m looking forward to the coaching staff I have now.”
Roberts is a firm believer in the adage, “whatever you focus upon gets bigger.” So, neither she nor her staff has brought up the injuries. Onwards and upwards. Though college coaches are only allowed limited access to their teams during the summer—two hours of individual attention a week, for six weeks—already, Rodriguez has found their enthusiasm infectious.
“You’d think we were rebuilding, but we have so much talent; we just need to be steered in the right direction,” says Rodriguez. “It’s exciting. We can have a really good season.”
Perhaps the most exciting result of Roberts’s arrival is the implementation of her system. Pedal to the medal tempo, an offense—often four out—keyed by great guard play. Good passers, strong drivers. Skill is paramount, and that’s music to Rodriguez’s ears. During pick-up games this summer, she’s been wheeling and dealing to her heart’s content.
“I’ve always loved getting up and down,” says Rodriguez. “I have great endurance, so while other girls get tired, I could forever.” A cadre of good guards—including Paige Crozon and Katie Kuklok, both now back from injury, will be on the wings. Emily Potter, a 6-5 post who was primed for a huge season in ‘14-15 before tearing one of her anterior cruciate ligaments, loves running the floor. In Roberts’s final season at Pacific, she coached another elite forward. Kendall Kenyon averaged a double-double in ‘14-15. Potter could soon post similar production.
Endurance is something Rodriguez has always done well. At Warren High, in her hometown of Downey, CA, Rodriguez ran a 4:54 mile in track. As a sophomore at Utah, she played all 50 minutes of a double-overtime win against archrival BYU. Which feat was more difficult?
Good question, Rodriguez says, before settling upon the perfect answer: “It’s a different kind of toughness. A mile…you’re out there by yourself. It’s individual mental toughness, you’ve got to fight it out. Going 50 minutes against BYU, you’ve got teammates and coaches pushing you. Compared to the mile, it’s 45 more minutes of running up and down. But with the adrenaline of both, you don’t think about it ‘til that last buzzer sounds. Your body stops, and you go, WOW.”
Levrets stressed character in the players he recruited. Good students, with activity engrained. At Downey High, Rodriguez was student body president, and played three sports. In the fall of her senior year, after three years of running cross country, she took up volleyball.
This past December, Rodriguez was nominated for the Allstate Good Works Team, which honors collegiate student-athletes who give back to the community. Utah posted a press release announcing the nomination, and listed some of Rodriguez’s charitable works. High school to college, the list grew quite lengthy. Rodriguez began volunteering in middle school, through the encouragement of her parents. She worked with kids in an after-school program, and found that she loved it. Helping people, making a difference. She’s done it ever since.
“I’m so blessed with the life I’ve been given,” says Rodriguez. “Others aren’t as lucky. Giving back in some way is satisfying.”
One of her latest projects is a dog-walking service for the elderly and infirm in Salt Lake City. Rodriguez had the idea of doing something different, and she stumbled upon this idea one day while searching online. It’s not so much a problem during winter months at home in sunny SoCal, but Rodriguez realized there was more of a market on the sleety streets near campus. “I love dogs, and here, you get to be with animals,” Rodriguez says. “It’s great. During the season, it’s hard to keep volunteering, but it’s easier in the summer. If I can do one thing a month, it makes me happy.”
In Rodriguez, one of two seniors on this season’s Utah roster, Roberts sees a leader. It’s something that’s been building since the thrown-into-the-fire narrative of her freshman year. Admittedly quiet then, Rodriguez credits the former coaching staff with helping push her to become more comfortable speaking her mind on and off the court.
Now, when Roberts needs to schedule a team meeting, or impart a quick message to her players, she texts Dani.
“She’s the leader in that sense,” says Roberts, “and she’s done a great job with that. She’s a really quality person—I don’t know how else to say it. She genuinely cares about other people, and wants to do right. That’s all you can ask for as a coach.”
This summer, Rodriguez has worked on her shooting. Being a bit more consistent, a bit quicker with her release. She wants to be more aggressive in transition.
“As she goes, we’ll go,” says Roberts. “She’ll enjoy playing more up-tempo, to her strengths. She’s got wheels, and she’s done a really nice job in the weight room. She’s improved in all her maxes this summer. I always tell my seniors, my goal is for them to have a great senior year. You remember that year the most. So, this is really ‘her’ year.”
Asked about her point guard’s potential, Roberts rattles off a response. Dani? All-conference type player.
“I really think so,” says Roberts. “We need to put her in a position to play to her potential and her strengths as much as possible this season. She needs to be confident. Whether she needs to score 20 points or 7 a night—I don’t know yet. That’s part of the work in progress.”
This season could be viewed as exactly that.
Work in progress.
But Rodriguez and Roberts might be on to something, when they say that Utah could make some noise in ‘15-16. You need a leader who understands the vision.
That’s Dani. Whom better to shepherd this program toward a brighter future?
Image courtesy of Utah Athletics