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Rodriguez has a leading role in Lawrence

Juan Felix Rodriguez (5) has directed Lawrence to a 7-1 start this season.LAWRENCE ATHLETICS

As a 14-year-old, arriving in Lawrence from the Dominican Republic, Juan Felix Rodriguez found refuge on the basketball court.

Struggling academically while trying to learn English as a second language, Rodriguez would shoot hoops at the Lawrence YMCA for hours. And that is where Lawrence High boys’ basketball coach Raymond Nunez first encountered the promising freshman.

Rodriguez earned a spot on the varsity as a freshman, but halfway through the season, he was academically ineligible.

Returning with heightened focus, he averaged 11 points per game as a sophomore before a breakout junior season last winter in which he averaged 20 points per game. He was the runnerup to Lowell guard Alex Rivera in voting for Merrimack Valley Conference MVP honors.


“[Rodriguez] is just an athletically gifted kid and it’s a joy for us to have him,” said Nunez.

“We have a lot of talented kids, but sometimes they need to find their confidence. I think Juan Felix did towards the end of last season and he’s carried that into this year. The sky is the limit for him.”

Lawrence (7-1, 3-0 MVC) will host Lowell (7-0, 4-0) Friday in a battle for conference supremacy. The contest is sure to excite, as Lawrence averages 78.9 points per game and Lowell is at 77.0.

Both teams are comfortable playing at a fast pace, which has been the calling card for the Lancers the past several seasons.

“Traditionally, Lawrence plays fast-paced basketball,” said Nunez.

“We try to use our players’ athleticism to our advantage.”

While he remains quiet off the court, Rodriguez is making plenty of noise by excelling within that fast-paced system.

The senior netted a game-high 25 points in a 72-60 comeback win over Andover last Friday night despite facing “box-and-one” coverage most of the game. An explosive leaper with a high motor, Rodriguez finds way to produce offensively regardless of opposing defensive schemes.


That determination is part of his evolution on the court. But the 6-foot guard says he’s learned many more lessons through basketball.

“[Lawrence basketball has] changed my life,” said Rodriguez, now 18.

“It’s given me structure on and off the court and I’ve learned that it’s not just about basketball, but about becoming a well-rounded person.”

“I didn’t see myself as a role model until junior year, but now I see that my actions impact other kids, so I have to make sure that I’m doing the right thing at all times.”

He credits the Lawrence faithful and his teammates for inspiring that relentless effort.

“Getting rebounds and running is what we do and we need energy to do it,” said Rodriguez, who is averaging 19.7 points per game. “We just need to keep working. We have a long way to go.”

According to his teammates, Rodriguez has come a long way already.

Senior guard Cristian Kinsley , who has played alongside Rodriguez since they were freshmen, acknowledged his friend “

was kind of anti-social at first.

“But he’s loosened up and on the court, he was also good, but now he’s really adapted. He’s gotten stronger, faster, and everybody goes off the energy he brings.”

Rodriguez has also become a leader off the court as a key contributor in the Lancers’ community outreach endeavors. The team runs a reading program at the local YMCA, an annual cleanup effort with the mayor’s office and the “Smart Hoops” training camp for kids at the Lawrence Boys & Girls Club each summer.


“Rodriguez took interest in being part of what we’re doing, not just basketball, but in the community service we do,” said assistant coach Frank Torres .

“He also helps other kids like himself, who come from other countries by getting them to play a sport or get involved in an activity in order to improve their English skills.”

Along with senior leaders Rodriguez and Kinsley, Lawrence features a couple of talented juniors in shooting guard Chris Ruiz and versatile forward Luis Reynoso .

With a potent combination of skill and experience, Nunez has high hopes for this group, whom he rates amongst the best he’s had in six years as the head coach.

“They can achieve great things with the inner belief that we have all the elements that we need to win a state championship,” said Nunez.

“But they need to play for each other and block out all the noise.”

Courtside chatter

■  Alfie Tsang , a reserve sophomore guard for Mystic Valley Charter, had a historic night off from the bench last week in an 80-48 win against Greater Lawrence. Tsang scored a program-record 40 points and was lights out beyond the arc – draining six of his seven attempts. ‘‘He had the game of his life,’’ said Mystic Valley coach Tom Ferullo . I don’t remember seeing a shooting performance like that in my 22 years of coaching,’’ Earlier this season, Tsang recorded 20 points and 10 rebounds in the program’s first win over Greater Lowell, 77-75.


■  Fifth-ranked Central Catholic, along with No. 12 Newton North, will make the trek west this weekend to play in the annual Hoophall Classic at Springfield College’s Blake Arena. On Saturday morning (10:30 a.m.), Central will face Long Island Lutheran (N.Y.). Newton North and Springfield Central will cap the four-day tournament with a showdown Monday night at 7.

■  Lowell senior guard Alex Rivera is cementing himself as one of the best shooters in the state for the Red Raiders. The UMass-Lowell-bound senior produced a game-high 27 points — headlined by seven 3-pointers — in a 72-58 Merrimack Valley Conference win over Central Catholic as Lowell rolled to 7-0 . . . Two-time defending Division 1 champion Cambridge Rindge & Latin extended the program’s win streak to 52 games with wins over Brookline (59-53) and Newton South (74-49) last week . . . Needham High senior Thomas Shaughnessy enters Tuesday night’s game at Braintree with 992 career points.

Players of the Week

Colin Bradanese, Central Catholic — After being limited to 7 points on Tuesday night in a 72-58 loss to Lowell, the senior forward showed up in a big way on Friday — scoring 27 points as Central cruised past Methuen, 73-38.

Jarret Byrne, Matignon — The senior forward propelled the Warriors past Marian, 89-57,. with a 30-point, nine-rebound performance.

Chris Edgehill

, Franklin — The sophomore guard matched his career high with 28 points in the Panthers’ 63-50 win over Oliver Ames on Sunday. Edgehill also had 8 points with four assists in a win over Catholic Memorial last Wednesday.


Drew Plante, Fairhaven — It was a career night for the senior, who netted 25 points and grabbed 17 rebounds as the Cardinals clipped Case, 58-51, last Wednesday.

Ethan Wright, Newton North — The Princeton-bound guard was a catalyst for the Tigers with 34 points, nine rebounds and five steals in their 78-52 win against Billerica on Saturday.

Games to Watch

■  Tuesday, St. John’s Prep at Catholic Memorial, 7 p.m.— It has been a tough schedule to navigate for Denis Tobin and his Knights. But CM has a chance at home to right the ship in the Catholic Conference when they face a talented Eagles’ team.

■  Thursday, Cardinal Spellman at St. Mary’s, 6:30 p.m. — The Catholic Central League race looks like it will come down to either the Cardinals or the Spartans. The first of two pivotal matchups on the season was postponed on Friday. But this week, Spellman will host the Spartans with sole possession of the conference on the line.

■  Friday, Cambridge at Newton North, 6:30 — The Falcons put their potential 53-game winning streak on the line as they head west. In the Garden City, they will be greeted by Tigers’ star Ethan Wright in one of their toughest tests of the season so far.

■  Friday, Catholic Memorial at BC High, 7 — It is a double dose of the Eagles in the Catholic Conference this week for the Knights, who will have to turn around after Prep and prepare for another difficult opponent later in the week.

■  Friday, Lowell at Lawrence, 7:15 — Looking for fireworks on Friday night? You’ll see it as the Lancers host the Red Raiders in an electric Merrimack Valley Conference clash.

Correspondent Karl Capen also contributed to this story.