Shakey Rodriguez would have been proud.
Mater Academy Charter High School’s boys basketball coach was a South Florida sports icon who led high school teams to five state championships.
But he died from a brain aneurysm during the preseason, the biggest setback among challenges his Mater team faced.
The school’s gym at its Hialeah Gardens campus was being rebuilt and the team often had to practice and play elsewhere, while the coronavirus pandemic raged.
Despite those tests, Mater somehow achieved the best season in school history.
The Lions went to the state championship game for the first time, falling 72-45 to nationally ranked Bartow High School in the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 6A final in Lakeland on March 6.
Mater finished the season with a 21-3 record.
“The locker room was full of tears,” after the final, said Eric Rodriguez.
The younger Rodriguez, 33, had replaced his father as Mater’s head coach after being his assistant the past two years.
“They really wanted to win it for my father,” he said.
There were signs this would be a big year for Mater: They went 25-5 last season and made it to the Class 6A regional finals.
And they had Marcos Antonio “Shakey” Rodriguez to lead them.
He coached Miami High School to five state championships, then led Florida International University’s men’s basketball for five seasons. His 1997-98 FIU team has the best record in the school’s history, at 21-8.
Rodriguez was influential in the South Florida basketball scene for decades, helping to develop Miami Heat captain and three-time NBA champion Udonis Haslem as well as other NBA stars.
But when it was Mater’s turn, suddenly on Nov. 4, Shakey Rodriguez, 67, was gone.
“Some of the kids transferred to play for him, so it was a shock to them,” Eric Rodriguez said.
For some teams, their coach’s death would have been a season-ending blow.
The Mater kids persevered.
“With all the emotions they were experiencing, they decided to fight and play for him,” Rodriguez said.
The kids kept the memory of Shakey Rodriguez close, wearing his face
on their warm-up shirts, emblazoned with the word “Legend.”
In the state tournament, they battled through a series of close games, beating McArthur 55-51, then Doral Academy 55-53, then Martin County 62-60, then Charlotte 59-53 in the state semifinals.
Mater did it with toughness, a Shakey
Still, the storybook ending didn’t happen.
Bartow was simply too good, and a 19-9 run in the third quarter ended the Lions’ dream.
Mater senior guard Ryan Sanchez scored 13 points in the championship game. Though they lost the rebounding battle and shots didn’t fall, Sanchez said
he considered the season a success and an experience he will never forget.
“This season means a lot to me because it was difficult playing with our minds on our coach most of the time,” Sanchez said.
Junior guard Jimel Lane, who also scored 13 points, said the team learned to play together through adversity.
“We will set a lot of goals for our team and accomplish them next year to get back to the championship game,” Lane said.
The season for Mater Academy Charter High School’s boys basketball team began with sorrow and ended in disappointment.
But their journey taught them more than winning the top prize ever could.