As a member of the Dalton Catamounts, who won multiple Georgia state championships and were among the nation's top-ranked teams during his time with the program, Damian Rodriguez could not have played soccer at a much higher level in high school.
Then he started training with the Chattanooga Football Club and realized there's another level for him to reach.
Luckily for Rodriguez, he likes a challenge.
He will dress for his first National Independent Soccer Association regular-season match when Chattanooga FC hosts Stumptown AC at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Finley Stadium. It's the opener of the fall league schedule for both CFC and Stumptown AC, which is from Matthews, North Carolina, near Charlotte.
Rodriguez has been able to play a little bit for CFC already this summer as the club competed in NISA's Independent Cup tournament in between the spring and fall campaigns. In addition, in the "Chaco Cup" home-and-away exhibition series against Appalachian FC, he had a key assist that led to the tying goal in a 3-3 draw July 21 at Finley Stadium.
But those who follow the area's successful prep soccer scene should already know his name. As a senior captain this past spring for Dalton, he finished the season with 15 goals and 11 assists to help the Catamounts repeat as GHSA Class AAAAAA champions and win the program's sixth state title overall.
The skill level in the professional ranks wasn't what Rodriguez had to get used to — there's plenty of that in leagues all around Dalton — as much as the physicality.
"I'm a little guy," said Rodriguez, who is listed as a midfielder on CFC's roster. "Compared to everybody, I have to put in double the work to try to move them around and everything. I just want to be fast and get behind their shoulders; if I have to go for a body-to-body (approach), I'll go for it, but I try not to go for that much."
Speed and ball control/dribbling are more of his game, but he has been forced to adjust some in that regard as well.
"Whenever I would get in the game, I would try to take a lot of touches and, boom, they just come at me and take it away, and I'd get yelled at," he said. "That's just how it is here."
But he has time to learn. The NISA fall schedule is 18 games — nine home, nine away — with the regular season's top team crowned the overall champ. After that, the league plans to go to a more traditional calendar in 2022, beginning in March or April and running through the fall.
Rodriguez isn't expected to be a part of that because he plans to start college in the spring. But his ascension from a CFC Academy player to one earning time with the main club — much like his brother Fabian, who is also training with CFC — has been a result of hard work.
"Those kids are doing great and probably have exceeded expectations, CFC head coach Peter Fuller said. "Certainly Damian has, but I should have expected more because he's got real quality, and we knew that. What we didn't know is how he was going to get in and how he was going to do against bigger, stronger, more athletic guys. Was he going to be able to produce the same things that we saw in his own age group?
"He's done just that. He's done well."