The Johansen High soccer team won a Modesto Metro Conference title three years ago, when Jose Luis Rodriguez was a freshman defender.
Since then, the Vikings have been an MMC afterthought, finishing below .500 the last two seasons.
But Rodriguez was determined to change that.
"It's my senior year," he said. "Plus, I felt we had a pretty strong group of guys."
Rodriguez moved to striker, where he led his team -- and the MMC -- in scoring. He led the Vikings to a second-place finish in league, and into the second round of the Sac-Joaquin Section Division I playoffs.
For his efforts, Rodriguez has been named The Bee's 2008 Boys Soccer Player of the Year.
Rodriguez scored with a flashy style. He tapped balls into the net from almost impossible angles. He scored on breakaways. In the Vikings' playoff victory over Tracy, he found the net with a bicycle kick.
It's been a long journey on the pitch for somebody who says he's played soccer "as long as I can remember."
On one of his first competitive teams, he found himself in a new position: on the bench.
"I was 11, and I didn't get a lot of playing time," Rodriguez said. "I used that as motivation. I kept working hard and I got better. People can make big changes in a short time."
He hasn't left the field since.
This year, said Rodriguez, will be memorable because of the Vikings' close league title race, as well as the Tracy victory.
"Our league was so intense," Rodriguez said. "We were there, and so were Downey and Modesto. Those three teams just kept winning."
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Johansen was atop the standings for nearly the entire season. But on the final day, Modesto beat the Vikings in a must-win game for the Panthers, while Downey took the league title with a victory across town.
That sent Johansen to a playoff game at Tracy.
"The whole team played so well," he said. "We had to. We got a couple of red cards, and we had a goal called back. But we kept picking each other up. We were at our best that day."
Rodriguez hopes to continue playing organized soccer, most likely at Modesto Junior College. But he'll always play some form of soccer.
"I love the sport," he said. "I'm out there with my friends, having a great time. It makes me happy.
"To me, soccer's a way of enjoying life."
Bee staff writer Will DeBoard can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 578-2300.