EDITOR’S NOTE: Check back throughout the week for AIM Media’s other superlative award winners, as well as the All-Area and All-Valley football teams.

WESLACO — Weslaco High’s Eli Rodriguez had to wait for his moment.

Last year, the running back played a limited role for the Panthers after not seeing much action at all as a sophomore.

When his moment arrived this season, however, Rodriguez ran with it and never looked back.

The senior bell cow emerged as one of the top running backs in South Texas during his lone season as the starter, racking up 1,936 total yards and 26 total touchdowns to help guide the Panthers to their first district title since 2015 and first undefeated regular season since 1991.

Rodriguez is The Monitor’s All-Area Football Player of the Year.

Weslaco High’s Eli Rodriguez. (Andrew Cordero | Special to RGVSports)

“It’s superb to earn this honor,” Rodriguez said. “I’m completely blessed. I want to, first off, thank God, always. Then my coaches for putting me in this situation and my parents for being my biggest supporters, always. I hadn’t always been ‘the guy.’ This year I had high expectations and, God willing, this all happened. It’s truly a dream come true.”

Rodriguez’s senior year success shouldn’t be viewed as a fluke, with the Weslaco High athlete working in silence while waiting for his moment.

His combination of strength built through wrestling and speed developed on the track made him a well-rounded back when that moment came, able to run both inside and outside the tackles.

Rodriguez wasted no time displaying his hard work when his chance arrived, establishing himself as as the Panthers’ lead back from Week 1 after rushing for 164 yards and four touchdowns during a 34-0 victory over Mercedes.

The performance was just the tip of the iceberg for Rodriguez, who eclipsed the 100-yard rushing mark during seven of his 11 appearances, including four 200-rushing-yard games.

Weslaco High running back Eli Rodriguez carries the ball during a non-district contest against Harlingen South on Aug. 31, 2023 at Bobby Lackey Stadium in Weslaco. (Joel Martinez | The Monitor)

“My main focus this year was make a name for myself,” Rodriguez said. “There are some big shoes here, from Mishak Rivas to Jacob Cavazos. Growing up I wanted to be just like them. Not necessarily them, but being someone other kids can look up to. I feel like I did that.”

More impressively, Rodriguez’s game evolved into another level during any contest’s biggest moments, almost always rising to the occasion when the Panthers needed a big play.

During Weslaco High’s district-opening victory over Harlingen High, he caught the game-winning touchdown during the final seconds of regulation, his third score during the 35-32 victory.

Rodriguez came up big once again against Los Fresnos, erupting for more than 250 second-half rushing yards and four touchdowns to lead the Panthers past the Falcons 42-23 on the road.

Weslaco High running back Eli Rodriguez (6) breaks free for a touchdown during a District 32-6A contest against Los Fresnos on Oct. 13 at Leo Aguilar Memorial Stadium in Los Fresnos. (Andrew Cordero | Special to RGVSports)

With the district title on the line during their regular-season finale, Rodriguez made one of the biggest plays of the game once again, taking a pass from Andres Sepulveda 62 yards for a touchdown to give Weslaco High their first lead of the game.

The Panthers went on to win the game in double overtime, locking up their first district title under head coach Roy Stroman and first unbeaten season in more than three decades.

“My mindset in those big moments is my team has been here for me through everything, so if I can help out anyway I can, I will,” Rodriguez said. “From two-a-days to those hard practices, they’ve been there. That’s where those big plays come from. I just go out there and run hard and mad at the floor, and make it happen.”

Rodriguez and the Panthers’ season came to an end in the Class 6A DII area round, falling to San Antonio Jay 27-14. He finished the regular season with 1,453 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns on 150 carries, the fourth-best mark in the RGV this year.

Overall, he racked up 1,745 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns in 12 games played, including the postseason, which featured a 26-carry, 244-yard, three-touchdown performance during the bi-district round.

Weslaco High running back Eli Rodriguez. (Andrew Cordero | Special to RGVSports)

“This season was amazing,” Rodriguez said. “I think the team really came together. Offense was clicking. The defense was amazing. It was just superb. Everybody became one family. The chemistry was there, and we did what we needed to do to come out as district champs.”

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