For years, the tapestry of Sylvia Hernandez’s life was as steady as a drumbeat. There was the thump of her right hand smacking a volleyball followed immediately by the thud of the ball hitting the hardwood on the other side of the net.
But that was then, in her high school days, when Hernandez led Westminster Christian School in Palmetto Bay to a state championship and was named the Miami Herald’s Female Athlete of the Year. That was when Hernandez, who is 5-foot-11, was an outside hitter.
Hernandez’s dream school has always been the University of Miami, where her father, Henry, played baseball as a first baseman and her mother, Sylvia, ran track as a sprinter. Hernandez’s younger sister, Priscilla, will arrive at UM in 2018 as a soccer goalie. And their youngest sister, Saskia, is a high school freshman and a budding volleyball star who could also end up in Coral Gables.
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So, given that history, when UM coach Keno Gandara offered Sylvia Hernandez a scholarship, she quickly said yes. But Gandara’s offer came with a caveat: She would no longer be an outside hitter.
In essence, Hernandez would now be the “hittee,” playing a position called libero, aka defensive specialist, assigned the task of waiting in the back row to dig out those ferocious smacks.
“I came (to UM) having never been hit in the face (with the ball),” Hernandez said. “And in one week in practice, I got hit in the face five times.
“It hurt, but you get the ball up. You basically use any body part to get the ball up.”
The physical pain Hernandez felt was nothing compared to the slings and arrows that dented her pride.
She went from the front row to the back row, from every point revolving around her talents at Westminster to making just one start as a UM freshman.
“I remember the first game. I didn’t play, and I was so upset and so embarrassed because people came to watch me,” she said.
“But my mom said, ‘Look, these people are here because they love you not because you play volleyball. They’re here to support you.’”
Hernandez rode the bench for much of her first two years at UM, often sitting behind regular libero Kalysta White.
Things changed after White graduated, and Hernandez took over the starting job fully as a junior, emerging as one of the best liberos in the Atlantic Coast Conference. In fact, she is fourth in the ACC in digs so far this year.
Hernandez made the all-tournament team twice in UM’s first two weeks of this season, and her enthusiasm every time she digs out an opponent’s blistering shot has been infectious.
“She has grown so much as a player,” said teammate Haley Templeton, Miami’s setter. “Her freshman year, you could tell it was hard for her to transition to just being a libero.
“But she’s killing it now. She’s owning her position.”
Julie Doan, who coached Hernandez at Westminster, has faith in her former star.
“In our world (in high school), she had good size,” Doan said. “She was great, and I think she could’ve been successful as an outside hitter in college. In club volleyball, I saw her beat the best teams in the country even though she was smaller.
“But height matters at that (college) level sometimes. Most college outside hitters are six feet or taller.”
Gandara, ultimately, made the call. He needed a libero, and he liked Hernandez’s competitive nature if not her height.
The coach had seen Hernandez play in high school and had admired her toughness. And when he offered her a scholarship, the conversation was revealing.
“She said, ‘thank you’ (for the offer), but what about hitting?’” Gandara said. “I said, ‘This is what I need you to do.’”
Gandara said he recognized Hernandez’s talent as a hitter, but added that “if you are everywhere, you are nowhere.”
Translation: Hernandez had to accept her new position and commit to being a better defender, passer and server.
Hernandez did what was asked, but it was difficult, especially emotionally.
“I was ecstatic when I got the offer to be a part of UM’s program,” Hernandez said. “I thought the transition would be easier. I didn’t realize how strongly I identified with being a hitter. And in college, everyone is so good — it was eye-opening.
“I had to figure out my place and what I could to help the team.”
Hernandez, who is set to graduate in May with a degree in Management and Marketing, has adjusted, finally.
“I love it now,” she said of her role on the team. “I couldn’t be happier.”
Doan, who coached her from age 12 to 18, saw her play recently and said she was “blown away” by how relentless Hernandez was in pursuit of the ball.
Hernandez said she now delights in denying hitters.
“When someone in the back row makes a dig, it’s like a stab in the heart to the hitter,” she said. “They’re thinking, ‘I hit that ball so well. How did it not go down?’
“I want to be the girl who takes that away from hitters. I want to be the girl who makes them feel like, ‘Oh my gosh, how did she get that ball?’”