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Volleyball Changes A Life In Central Falls

"She has a passion that no one else has."

Joana Rodrigues




Every spring, just before the school year concludes and summer begins, Rich Sousa heads over to the middle school in Central Falls and asks around the gym if there are any prospects for his high school volleyball team.

During this one particularly visit five years ago, all those in attendance in the gym immediately pointed to one girl, who towered over her eight grade classmates: Joana Rodrigues.

“Everyone in the gym said she was athletic and she was tall, taller than any player I’d had,” said Sousa.


There was one issue. Rodrigues, a first generation who came to America from Cape Verde when she was 10, had never played volleyball – or any other organized sport before.

“(Coach Sousa) asked me to play. He told me I had potential,” said Rodrigues.

Rodrigues showed up for the first Central Falls volleyball practice that fall, eager to learn. She said she liked it right away, adapted quickly and became a critical part of the team right from the start. She’s a 6-foot outside hitter who averages in double figures in kills. By the time she was a junior, Rodrigues led the Warriors to the Division III  championship and became the first player in Central Falls high school history to earn All-State honors. More importantly, Rodrigues hopes that by receiving the prestigious award, it changes the narrative and erases the stigma she said Central Falls carries.

Joana Rodrigues

“I felt happy (earning All-State). What made me really happy is that it showed people that Central Falls High School is a good place, that Central Falls is not a bad school, it’s a good school,” said Rodrigues. “You can learn and be successful.”

Sousa has served as the head volleyball coach at Central Falls for the past 16 years. Never, he said, has he had a player as talented as Rodrigues.

“She is my best player of all time,” said Sousa. “She has a passion that no one else has. You have different types of kids. You have a kid who just wants to be on a team. You have the kid who wants to be with her friends and have something to do after school, you got the kid that plays the sport, but it’s not their passion sport, but with Joana it’s very rare that you find the girl who has the passion for the sport, the girl who is going to be there when she doesn’t even have to be there…the person who who helps out the younger kids because they want to be around the game more…the person who is going to want to play once they graduate in college or as adult while most others will let it go. Every once a while you find that girl who has the passion..

That’s Rodrigues.

Portsmouth Prevention CoalitionShe has a passion for volleyball because the sport has changed her life. She said being part of the team and learning a new sport helped acclimate to life in her new surroundings. She is one of 10. She lives in CF with her dad and one sister. Her mom remains in Cape Verde.  With her family scattered, she cherishes the strong relationship she has created with her teammates.

“We are a family,” she said. “I love volleyball. It has helped me so much,” said Rodrigues,

Now, in her final year, the senior captain has led the Warriors to an unbeaten 5-0 record heading into the first week of October. Among the victories includes a recent five set, come-from-behind win over defending Division III champ Scituate. Rodrigues credits her teammates, setter Yuselly Yulianna Hernandez, All-Division outside hitter Pamela Galva and outside hitter Alexysa Torres with the team’s early success.

Joana Rodrigues

“They are playing well together,” said Sousa. “The key is to get Joana the ball. Once we do that no one can stop her.”

Sousa said what sets Joanna apart from the other players, including those who play at the highest level in Division I, is how hard she hits the ball.

“She hits the ball harder than anyone else. Even if she hits the ball at a player, there’s a good chance they’re not going to be able to handle it,” he said. “She hits so much harder than anybody I’ve ever had, including my assistant who played in college. Joana absolutely crushes it. She is averaging 14-16 kills and would be more like 20 if we went five sets.”

Rodirgues and her senior teammates – Hernandez and Gaiva – hope to return to the Division III championship this year and have different results.

“We were nervous last year, doubted ourselves and we just gave up on ourselves,” said Joana. “This year we want to win the championship. I think we can. We aren’t doubting ourselves this year. We get help from our coach every single day and we are working hard to be on the top.”

An honor roll student, Rodrigues, hopes to play volleyball in college next year.

“She can absolutely play in college,” said Sousa.

Rodrigues hopes that playing volleyball in college will set the stage for a brighter future.

“I want to go to college and get a good job so I can bring my mom to stay with me,” she said. “She still is in Cape Verde.”

When asked who her role model is, Rodrigues doesn’t hesitate.

“Myself,” she said. “I didn’t think I could play volleyball and get honors, All-State, All-Division. It has changed my life.”