By SETH STRINGER
NICEVILLE — Jeromy Rodriguez was solid enough as a freshman for NWF State.
The 6-foot-7 power forward worked hard on the glass. He shot a high percentage. He was selfless.
He was everything you'd want from a sixth man, his 6.7 points and 4.8 rebounds efficient — but far from flashy — for last year's elite eight crew.
A year later he's proof positive of NWF State's developmental program. Monday's Panhandle Conference's Player of the Year nod — as voted on by the conference's coaches — affirmed that.
"The best thing I can say about this program and the staff is we show a lot of confidence in our guys," said Steve DeMeo, NWF State's head coach. "When they decide to come back we empower them and let them know what they can become. From the end of last year to the start of summer, there's a lot of development that's taken place on and off the court.
"No one foresaw that Jeromy would become one of the best Juco players in the country. But we recognized how great he could be."
How great? No player has been more integral to NWF State's 26-2 campaign, which includes the program's first-ever 12-0 conference finish.
On the season Rodriguez — his first name pronounced Juh-Roh-mee — is averaging 14 points, a team-high nine rebounds, 1.4 steals and a block. Pretty good for a 6-7 guy playing a role typically resigned to 6-10-and-above players.
"He's got long arms, he has great anticipation and he has a great second jump," DeMeo said. "A lot of the best players in the NBA aren't as tall as you'd think. They have long arms and are able to read plays well."
Unlike last year when he came off the bench in all but four games, Rodriguez has started all 28 games this year and is averaging 26 minutes a night. His 61-percent shooting effort is also the face of an offense that ranks second in the country with a 54-percent shooting clip.
"It doesn't matter what position I play, if I'm starting or how many minutes I'm playing, my role is to do whatever coach wants," Rodriguez said. "I rebound, I protect the rim, I take smart shots and I make sure to speak to my teammates and I make sure that we're all on the same page."
Rodriguez specifically praised assistant coach Tevin Baskin, who works primarily with the big men.
"He's really taught me and Malik (Petteway) a lot about the game," Rodriguez said. "He's a great coach."
Baskin, who at 26 years old isn't far removed from a playing career that featured stops at Quinnipiac University, Chipola, Appalachian State and professional ball in Mexico, said his work with Rodriguez has been more mental than physical.
"It's more of an approach to get him to stay within himself but also to get the most out of him and what he does so well," Baskin said. "He has a unique motor for a guy at this level ... and you don't see a lot of guys like him in basketball. From how he carries himself to his approach on and off the court, it's an honor to work with him and Malik. They take criticism so well and work hard and are always striving to be better."
"He told me to come by and when I saw him he said, 'Congrats. You've been named player of the year.' " Rodriguez said. "It was great news to me. It showed me that all the hard work has paid off."
The hard work, the leadership, the stats and — if all goes right for Rodgriguez and the team — postseason success will soon score him a Division I scholarship to his choice of mid majors. But for now, representative of the player and man he is, Rodriguez's first priority is defending the Raiders' Region 8 crown to shore up a national tournament bid.
"I haven't even talked about (the recruiting)," Rodriguez said. "At the end of the season I'll start taking visits, talk to my coach back home and coach DeMeo and figure out the best place for me. But that's for another time."
The unselfishness doesn't surprise DeMeo.
"This year he's really become one of our vocal leaders that puts the team first and keeps everyone together," DeMeo said. "I have a new respect for him."
And Rodriguez, once a sixth man, now has a new moniker: player of the year.
Wilson-Frame, a 6-5 sophomore guard, is averaging a team-high 14.7 points on 51 percent shooting to accent 3.6 rebounds and three steals per game.
Edwards, a 6-4 sophomore guard, is averaging 13.2 points on 51 percent shooting and 2.4 3-pointers on a 51-percent clip. That accompanies 3.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and a team-best 1.5 steals a night.
Feliz, a 6-2 freshman point guard, is averaging 11.6 points on 57 percent shooting and a team-best 4.7 assists and 1.5 steals.
Petteway, a 6-7 sophomore forward, is averaging 9.6 points on 62.2 percent shooting and seven rebounds a night.
"What five players on the first team really means is the guys have accomplished a lot together," DeMeo said. "They're all in this position because of each other. It's a great honor for the team and them individually."