The words ambushed Melanie Rodriguez in the halls at Narbonne High one day last spring, caught in the scramble between classes by boys’ soccer coach Jason Whitaker, presented with a possibility she didn’t know was possible.
“Hey, Mel,” Rodriguez remembered Whitaker saying, “what do you think about playing boys’ varsity soccer?”
She didn’t think. Hadn’t thought. The proposition was a surprise.
But Whitaker had no goalie, with senior Ivan Hernandez graduating, and wasn’t about to rely on summer suspense to bring in a freshman who could somehow step capably into goal for the reigning Marine League champs. So his quest to find the best goalkeeper on campus brought him not to a returning member of his own roster, but to Rodriguez, a 5-foot-5, 128-pound rising senior who’d manned the goal adeptly for an 8-4 Narbonne girls’ team in the fall.
“I was like, ‘Agh, you know, I have no goalie, I need a goalie,’” Whitaker said. “I don’t care if she’s a girl. I care if she’s a good goalie.’”
So this winter, then, the City Section will see a girl trying out for a boys’ soccer team. Already an event so rare that Dawn Xitco, an athletic specialist with the Los Angeles Unified School District, said she couldn’t remember any such inquiries in her 10-year tenure.
But Whitaker’s plan is a step further into uncharted territory: Rodriguez has already been tabbed as the Gauchos’ starting goalie, he said, and will man arguably the most important position on the field for a team that competed in Division I of the City playoffs last season.
“I was a little bit intimidated at first,” Rodriguez said, “but I’m one to take a challenge head-on.”
Her mother Leslie Mazariegos, still, is worried for her safety. There will be backtalk, and lashings, and controversy, Mazariegos imagines.
But her daughter will be in that goal, Mazariegos said, for a reason. For the passion that first transfixed Rodriguez as a young girl while watching the 2014 World Cup, begging her mother to let her play soccer after she saw Mexico’s Guillermo Ochoa crash into goalposts to deny Brazil.
“I would like to be an inspiration for girls,” Rodriguez said, when asked what’s driving her to play for the Narbonne boys. “I notice a lot of girls fail to do things because boys tell them not to do it, or the men in their lives tell them not to do it.”
“And I want to be an example,” she continued, “of a person who does it despite what other people say.”