WATSONVILLE — Juliana Wilson said her friendship with Jessica Rodriguez started with a piece of cantaloupe.
Or maybe it was a Fruit Roll-Up.
Or possibly a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup.
“I had the best snacks,” Wilson joked. “That’s why she was my friend.”
Best friends since preschool and softball teammates since they were 8, Watsonville’s star batterymates shared another special moment on Friday, signing their respective letters of intent to play NCAA Division I softball in front of more than a hundred friends, family, teammates and coaches.
Wilson, a hard-hitting catcher, signed with the University of Central Florida, and Rodriguez, a shutdown pitcher, signed with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
“The old saying that it takes a village is true,” said Scott Wilson, Watsonville’s head softball coach and Juliana’s father, while addressing the crowd. “This amount of support is really special, and a little overwhelming.”
The emotions poured out during the hour-long ceremony that started with the duo signing their letters, and featured speeches from nearly all of their softball coaches past and present. Scott Wilson and Rodriguez’s father, Rocky, also gave speeches, but struggled to finish as they held back tears.
“It’s a special moment for our family,” Rocky Rodriguez said. “To get her education, she’s not going to have any school bills when she gets out. She can start her life. I’m super proud of her and Julz.”
Wilson and Rodriguez are believed to be Watsonville’s first softball players to sign with an NCAA D-I program since Samantha Legorreta signed with James Madison University in 2003.
“To do this coming from a small town like Watsonville, that makes it a little more special,” Rodriguez said.
Rodriguez and Wilson were impressively verbally committed before they ever played an inning at Watsonville, but neither player rested on their laurels after finding their future home. They found inspiration in each other to improve during travel ball in the summer, and high school softball in the spring.
“Jessica is a hardworking person,” Wilson said. “She pushes me to be better than what I am right now, and I do the same for her because I know she has a lot of potential to become an even better pitcher.”
Their talent immediately kick started the softball team’s most successful three-year run in program history. Over the last three seasons, the Wildcatz compiled a 62-20 overall record, won a pair of league championships and claimed the program’s first-ever Central Coast Section title.
“They’ve been able to monitor each other, they’ve been able to balance each other,” Scott Wilson said. “They probably know each other better than [Rocky and I] know them.”
A year after leading the CCS in strikeouts and wins as a sophomore, Rodriguez impressed again by finishing second in earned run average and wins — she also finished fifth in the CCS in strikeouts. Despite her stellar high school season and a solid run in the travel ball circuit, a coaching change at UNLV left her future in limbo.
The Runnin’ Rebels moved on from coach Lisa Dodd in 2017, and hired current coach Kristie Fox shortly after. Rodriguez, often the smallest player on the diamond, had to take another visit to Vegas, and show Fox what makes her pitches special: pinpoint precision and unpredictable spin. Eventually, she earned her spot back on UNLV’s recruiting class.
“It’s been a long journey,” Rodriguez said. “Having that happen to me, it was really heartbreaking because I was so committed to UNLV — I was ready to go. You’ve always gotta keep working hard in case of things like that.”
U.C.F., too, went through a coaching change in the time after Wilson verbally committed to the Knights. Coach Renee Luers-Gillispie, who started U.C.F.’s program in 2002, jumped over to the University of Iowa during the summer, and nearly took Wilson with her. But after talking with new head coach Cindy Ball, a Mountain West Conference champion with Boise State last season, Watsonville’s slugger decided to stick with U.C.F.
“I fell in love with U.C.F.,” said Wilson, who last season finished second in the CCS in RBIs (50) and slugging percentage (1.303), third in home runs (11), fourth in hits (53) and fifth in batting average (.646) and doubles (13). “I fell in love with the coaches.”
Wilson and Rodriguez went to preschool together and immediately sparked up a friendship that truly blossomed when the two crossed paths again on the softball field. The first time they reunited, they were on opposing teams.
“I wanted to kick her butt,” Wilson said. “Just because we were friends I didn’t want her to win and have bragging rights over me.”
The two joined forces a year later, and Wilson started catching Rodriguez soon after. As the years went by, both became more serious about softball, and spent the majority of their weekends on the road at tournaments all over the West Coast — most of the time in Southern California. Sometimes Rocky played the role of dad, picking the girls up after school and driving down Highway 5, and other times it was Scott.
No matter who drove, Rodriguez and Wilson were always together.
“I see her every single day,” Rodriguez said. “I don't think I’ve had a good moment, or a week without her. She’s like my sister. We’re one family. Scott, I see him as a dad, too, and I look up to him. I look up to Julz, too. She’s a hard worker and a great talent. She’s going to do great things. I’m excited for both of us.”
Editor's Note: This article will be published in the Dec. 7 edition of the Register-Pajaronian newspaper.