CINCINNATI — Gabby Rodriguez is still on the Western Hills High School softball team roster this spring.
“I will treat her as if she is still here,” Western Hills coach Matt Phillips said. “Two years from now, when her senior class graduates, I will hold senior night for her and her parents.”
On Wednesday afternoon, the team will open its new high school softball field on campus in a game against Oyler and dedicate a memorial in Rodriguez’s honor behind home plate and the dugout. Her family will also receive a plaque.
Although the 15-year-old Rodriguez, who played as No. 13, was killed by a hit-and-run driver in September, her teammates and coach can still feel her presence. Their upcoming season is dedicated in her memory — the memory of a talented infielder who could’ve played on the school’s baseball team and had an indelible ability to make others laugh.
An hour before the first pitch at 4:30 p.m. Wednesday, Phillips and his 13 players will gather around three flagpoles beyond the outfield fence. A customized No. 13 flag in maroon and white will proudly fly next to the Stars and Stripes and the high school flags.
Rodriguez’s family, along with school administration officials, board of education members, school cheerleaders and community members, will attend the pregame ceremonies.
“We will make it as grand as we can,” Western Hills athletic director Phillip O’Neal said.
The Reds Community Fund was instrumental in helping to install a scoreboard, and there is electrical connectivity throughout the stadium. Fittingly, Rodriguez was a member of the Cincinnati Reds RBI — Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities — team. She played baseball with her elder brothers and was passionate about the game.
“She can do it all," O'Neal said. "There was nothing she couldn’t do on the field, which is pretty fantastic.”
Western Hills, Woodward and Withrow are the only Cincinnati Public Schools with softball fields on their respective campuses, so the opening is extra significant, according to CPS athletics manager Josh Hardin.
“It’s been overwhelming for me and just the support the Reds and the district has had,” said Phillips, who is in his second year of coaching the softball team. “They’ve done it really, really nice with the plaque and the banner out there.”
On Monday afternoon, the softball team practiced raising the flag in advance of Wednesday. Phillips watched his players stare at it. Some of them communicated their thoughts about their late teammate, reminding her the flag would fly high every day.
“It wasn’t emotional to the point where everybody was crying,” Phillips said. “It was more of like a proud moment for the team. I walked them through everything that’s going to happen on Wednesday because we still have to play. It was kind of like a rehearsal for him so they kind get their emotions in check.”
It was Rodriguez who helped to keep practice light. She was an advocate for the softball field on campus. Her influence as a freshman helped Western Hills (12-2, 12-0 in conference) win the Cincinnati Metro Athletic Conference in 2018 for its first league title in a handful of years.
Teammates grieved in individually in the months following Rodriguez's death, but the players also understand the collective journey they are on this spring.
“The girls won the conference last year, so they are looking forward to winning it again,” O’Neal said. “I know Gabby was a huge advocate of the field and a big push on the team. To lose her was a tragedy. Everybody is kind of leaning on each other here to push each other forward. We are trying to do everything we can for the kids.”