TAMPA — He was the future at Wiregrass Ranch. He is the present at Tampa Bay Tech.
Angel Rodriguez may have ruffled some feathers when he switched schools last spring, but in an atmosphere he never had a chance of encountering as a Bull — playoffs on the line, rivalry game, packed house — he was completely unruffled as a Titan.
He ran Tech's offense brilliantly. He made big plays when the Titans needed him most. He performed as if he had played in these types of games his whole life and led Tech right into the Class 4A playoffs against a team it almost never beat.
"He's fit in here beautifully,'' said big running back Maurice Hagens, who spent the night knocking down whatever Hillsborough set up.
Rodriguez may not be able to fully appreciate Tech's 26-20 win over Hillsborough, a playoff regular now reduced to fan in the stands, like Hagens does.
But he knows the frustration of losing, trying to rebuild every year, and failure. At Wiregrass Ranch, now a three-year-old school, he was the quarterback from the conception of that Wesley Chapel program.
Coach Ricky Thomas raved about his young signal caller.
He started their first junior varsity game. Their first varsity game. He was the star at Wiregrass, but ultimately Rodriguez didn't see a bright senior year at the school. He was benched last year early in the season, had a falling out with Thomas and never found his way out of the doghouse. So he found his way back to Temple Terrace, at the urging of Tech cornerback and his godfather D.D. Johnson.
"I just wanted a change, wanted something different for my senior year,'' Rodriguez said. "I had played with these guys as a kid, in youth football. I knew most of them.''
He has barely thrown 50 times this year. But he's still dangerous with the ball in his hands. He ran for 46 yards on five carries on Tech's first scoring drive.
He completed three passes for 42 yards — all on second or third-and-long plays — on the third scoring drive. In the fourth quarter, he scrambled for 17 yards on a key third-and-4 play that had turning point written all over it.
"What a game for Angel Rodriguez,'' said Tech coach C.C. Culpepper. "It was his best game as a Tampa Bay Tech Titan.''
His old teammates still may not have forgiven him — "I don't blame them,'' he said — and some said good riddance to a guy they called selfish. But the new surroundings seem to have cured of him if there was an excess of brashness and ego. Instead of being the Man, he's just one of the guys. Instead of being the veteran, he demures to guys like Hagens.
"I liked it at Wiregrass, and I played for a great coach there in Coach Thomas,'' he said.
Then he looked around, at his new teammates — one threw a towel at him, another tried to make him laugh during a television interview — and his celebration-soaked coaches, and gushed, "This has been great.''
As Tech coaches took turns spreading the credit, it was Rodriguez who stepped in quickly and pointed at Culpepper.
"He's the one who built this from the ground up,'' he yelled, then demanded a round of applause for the coach.
Rodriguez may just be the finishing touch.