Van Buren standouts Connor Johnson, Pedro Rodriguez help baseball, soccer teams to state titles

Buck Ringgold
Fort Smith Times Record

They were two of the more dominant athletes in the area during the spring, and they also hail from the same school.

This past weekend, Van Buren's Connor Johnson (baseball) and Pedro Rodriguez (soccer) were able to finish the job for their respective teams, leading each to state championships in a three-day span.

Last Thursday in the Class 5A baseball championship game at Benton, Johnson tossed a four-hitter and didn't allow a run until the seventh inning as the Pointers claimed the first state title in program history with a 12-1 win against Jonesboro.

Then, on Saturday, Rodriguez helped make it a double dip for Van Buren. In the 5A boys title game, also at Benton, he scored an early goal and then assisted Kylan Almond for the eventual game-winning goal with 17:41 left as the Pointers edged Russellville, 2-1.

Both Johnson and Rodriguez were awarded Most Valuable Player honors following their games. Both are also honored as the Times Record's Co-Athletes of the Week.

Pedro Rodriguez (right) celebrates with Fernando Romero (7) after Rodriguez scored the first goal of the game on Saturday, May 22, 2021, at the Class 5A State soccer championship held at Everett Field hosted by Benton High School. Van Buren defeated Russellville 2-1.

In Johnson's win Thursday, he also capped a perfect 13-0 record for his senior season. The Central Arkansas signee gave up a single on the first pitch of the game.

"Pitching on short rest, I was nervous," Johnson said. "Then the game, there's tons of people here. I mean, I've never pitched in a state championship game before."

However, Johnson settled in after that and began shutting Jonesboro down. He finished with seven strikeouts, including the final out, and threw 88 pitches.

"Every game that I pitch, I want to win," Johnson said. "I don't care about (earned run average) or strikeouts, I just want to win the game. That's the best thing a pitcher can do is win games."

Boys soccer: Van Buren team posts another shutout to reach 5A championship game.

Rodriguez had a similar winning mentality in his game on Saturday.

Just 3:17 in, Rodriguez put the Pointers in front after receiving a pass from teammate Moi Torres.

That 1-0 score stood until near the midway point of the second half when Russellville tied it.

But several minutes later, Rodriguez - off a throw-in along the end line - spotted Almond a few yards from the goal. Rodriguez delivered a perfect pass, and Almond immediately tucked away the game-winner.

"It was a throw-in, and it was a 50/50 (ball) and (the defender) could have beat me," Rodriguez said, "but I just happened to win it. ... I go down the line, and I see Kylan right at the penalty spot and I just give it to him, a wide-open shot, and he finishes."

Baseball: Why Van Buren senior catcher Tanner Callahan is eager to win another state title.

Championship: How Sammy Seeger and his Van Buren baseball teammates celebrated their 5A-West title.

With his performance Saturday, Rodriguez capped a stellar junior season in which he scored a team-high 29 goals and had 16 assists.

He was also happy to help do his part in giving Van Buren its first boys soccer title since 2006 and continue the school's good fortune.

"It's great for the school, for baseball to win it as well as us," he said, "and it's just an amazing feeling."