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Forced to leave Cabrini, Arcadia's Katie Rodriguez boosting Knights' unbeaten start

12/05/2023, 11:45am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

Katie Rodriguez never wanted to be at Arcadia. 

The Ewing (N.J.) native and Peddie School (N.J.) product had spent her first four years at Cabrini University, fully intending on playing her fifth and final season in Radnor while she pursued her graduate degree.

But sometimes circumstances change drastically even when least expected. Such it was for Rodriguez and the rest of the Cabrini roster, which went from hoping to build on a 14-win season to not existing, its players scattering to rosters around the region. And that’s why she’s wearing a Knights’ No. 20 uniform for her last season of college hoops, not a Cavaliers No. 34.

Katie Rodriguz (above, left) is playing her final year at Arcadia following dissolution of Cabrini's women's team. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“I was very upset, but I knew I just wanted to play basketball, I knew I had to do it to myself, personally, I couldn’t end on a career [note] that I wasn’t happy with,” she said. “I felt like I needed to play and I needed to continue and just do it for myself and whatever team I was on.”

Rodriguez is making the most of her changed circumstances. She’s jumped right into a starting role with the Knights, playing a major part in their strong start to the season. After beating Penn State-Harrisburg on Monday, the Arcadia women are an unprecedented 7-0 on the season, with bigger goals ahead.

“We’re so happy to have her,” Arcadia coach Jackie Hartzell said. “Unfortunate circumstances for her but she’s handled it very well and has been such a great addition to our team. We’re thrilled to have her.”

It wasn’t long ago that Rodriguez’s emotions were in a much, much worse place. 

Rodriguez sat in her bed on a late June morning, confused at what she was seeing on her phone. It was that had broken the news: Cabrini University, closing in on a deal with Villanova University, was going to close at the end of the 2023-24 season.

Shortly after, Cabrini coach Kate Pearson sent a text to her team, confirming the report. 

“She was all-around very apologetic, she was like, ‘if you guys go into the portal, I understand, this is the situation,’” Rodriguez said. “She was mourning the loss, she was there for 18 years, she loves Cabrini.”

Pearson wasn’t the only one. Rodriguez was going into her fifth year at Cabrini, planning on graduating with a master’s degree in secondary education. She couldn’t imagine, she said, going anywhere else. 

In four years at Cabrini, she’d gone through highs and lows. As a freshman, she was averaging 4.0 ppg in a bench role when a knee injury cost her a good chunk of the season. Her sophomore year was limited to just one game due to COVID; she moved into the starting lineup as a junior and senior, averaging about 6.4 ppg and 8.0 rpg both years. She broke her nose twice as a senior, the reason she’s wearing a mask early this season. 

The Cavaliers won 22 games her rookie year, winning the women’s ECAC tournament to cap off the season. They went 14-14 in her junior and senior years, but seemed set up for a move back towards the postseason before the summer’s shocking news.

For a few weeks, it seemed like Cabrini’s 2023-24 season would go on as scheduled, the Cavaliers’ players participating in an offseason league at the Renegades gym in Hatboro. But the team’s underclassmen were understandably panicked, unsure of their future, and the upcoming season’s outlook began to look shaky.

When Pearson took the head coaching job at Rowan in late July, the writing was on the wall. The Cavaliers’ players started hitting the transfer portal, and once it became clear that there wouldn’t be a season, Rodriguez entered it as well. 

“There was no reason for us to not come back and have a great year — we had great freshmen, we were all-around excited to come back and I was just heartbroken,” she said. “It’s heartbreaking not being able to play somewhere I put a lot of work into.”

At first, she assumed she would end up at Cairn University, where her boyfriend Kam Clark was one of the Highlanders’ star players for the last five years. But Pearson, knowing that Hartzell had been in the market for a grad transfer in the post, suggested that Rodriguez look into the Knights. 

Rodriguez (above) was a two-year starter at Cabrini. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

“I knew we played them my junior year, and I was like ‘what’s Arcadia?’” Rodriguez said with a laugh.

Hartzell, who hadn’t brought in a single freshman this offseason due to having 15 returners from the year before, had assumed that any window to bring in a transfer had closed. Pearson let her know about Rodriguez, let her know about the unlikeliness of a Cabrini season. Knowing the circumstances, Hartzell didn’t want to appear as if she was taking advantage of Rodriguez’s situation.

“I told her I wasn’t going to, you know, pester her,” Hartzell said. “I tried to be very respectful of her situation so it was on her timeline and her terms. I knew when she came to visit, that she would fit in great, she’s a kid that we wanted— but I wanted it to be the right fit for her, too.”

It helped that Hartzell and her assistants, Jim Ricci and Shannon May, knew all-too-well what Rodriguez was going through. Hartzell and Ricci were coaching at USciences, May one of their seniors, when they found out that the West Philly institution was to close at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season. The Devils played that season out, winning 24 games and making it to the second round of the NCAA Tournament. 

Rodriguez hadn’t known that going into her meeting at Arcadia, but when Hartzell and Ricci filled her in on the situation, she instantly knew that they, perhaps more than anybody else she’d spoken with outside Cabrini, understood her situation exactly. 

“I just felt like compared to everywhere else that I was getting interest from, Jackie actually cared that I was coming there to make a difference, that I wasn’t just filling a roster spot,” she said. “Them knowing the emotions that I was going through and how they understood how much my last [season] of basketball meant to me really sold me on them.

“I got into Arcadia a week before school started.”

Hartzell and Rodriguez both said she fit in instantly. The only new player on a roster full of sophomores, juniors and seniors, she had no hesitation jumping right into the mix, even despite the fact that as a grad student she’s not living on campus full-time like her underclassman teammates.

“Jim Ricci says it all the time, he says ‘I’ve never seen a kid fit in as well as she does and as quick as she did,’” Hartzell said. “She’s a leader, she’s mature, everyone loves her and obviously she helps us on the court a whole lot.

Rodriguez has brought a stout defensive presence to the paint. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Rodriguez came off the bench in her first game with Arcadia, contributing 13 points and six blocks in a win over Rutgers-Camden. She moved into the starting lineup the next time out and hasn’t looked back.

On Saturday, Rodriguez poured in 13 points and more importantly played outstanding defense on Widener star forward Mia Robbins, Arcadia’s 78-72 win keeping them unbeaten six games into the season. She followed that up with a season-best 18 points in just 20 minutes on Monday against Penn State-Harrisburg. Through seven games, she’s averaging 11.4 ppg, a career best, and 7.4 rpg, plus 20 blocks — exactly as many as she needed to set the Cabrini all-time record.

“She’s the missing link for us,” Hartzell said. "We didn’t have what she could do in terms of a shot-blocker and a rebounder and a bigger, stronger player and she really, I can’t say it enough, how much she just fits. Like she’s been here all along.”

There’s a lot of basketball still to be played this season before Rodriguez calls it a career, her hope to teach at Peddie once she gets her master’s degree. She’ll take the same path from athletics to education that both of her parents went; her father, Herbert Rodriguez, competed in the discus in 1992 for El Salvador. The Knights have a few more weeks until MAC Freedom play begins in January, with a visit to Drexel coming on Dec. 29.

Unlike Cabrini, Arcadia has never really had success on the hoops court. The program’s records, which go back to 1992-93 and are incomplete before then, don’t include a season with more than 16 wins, and that was in 1997-98. The 15-12 season in Hartzell’s first year was the best since.

Seven straight wins to open the year is unchartered territory. No doubt it helps Rodriguez feel like she made the right choice. 

“I’ve never been 7-0, ever,” she said. “So it feels great, and it feels like every day we come with the intensity that we need to get that win to keep going.”

This might not be the group Rodriguez envisioned winning with, but she’s no doubt having a good time doing it. Sticking through the roller-coaster of a summer has taught her a new lesson in resilience, and the belief that things will turn out okay if you don’t stop trying.

“If you know you want to do something, just go and fight for it, no matter what you want to do,” she said. “Just continue on and something will always happen, someone will always be there.”

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