Following Her Passion: Minutewoman Makes Team Puerto Rico
July 11, 2007
Like many girls on the Little League softball fields in Connecticut, Davina Hernandez daydreamed about playing in the Olympics.
But in her imagination, she was playing for Team USA, alongside legends like her role model Natasha Whatley.
Playing against the Americans never crossed the mind of Hernandez, a lifelong Connecticut resident who will be a junior at the University of Massachusetts in September. She didn't even realize she was eligible to play for anybody else.
But Hernandez's play and last name got the attention of Puerto Rican softball officials at last year's Big League Softball World Series in Kalamazoo, Mich., which crowns the champion of summer league players who are under age 19.
Because her grandparents were born on the island commonwealth, Hernandez is eligible to represent Puerto Rico in international competition.
"My last name is Hispanic and people got talking to my dad and they found out that I'm half Puerto Rican and that my family is from there," Hernandez said last week. "They asked me if I'd be interested in playing for their junior (19-and-under) national team) in the Pan American games this past November."
Hernandez was interested, but too old as her birthday came before the cutoff date for her to be eligible. Hernandez returned to UMass, with the promise that she would be invited to try out for the adult national team this summer.
Back in Amherst, Hernandez was the fourth outfielder for the Minutewomen. She appeared in 37 games and started 11. She hit .242 (8-for-33) with a home run and seven RBIs. She will be a leading candidate to become a regular outfield starter next season, replacing senior cocaptain Candice Molinari.
Coincidentally, Molinari is playing for the Italian national team this summer, but it already has been eliminated from Olympic contention.
Softball, which is part of the 2008 Beijing Games, has been eliminated along with baseball from the Olympics beginning in 2012.
Miami to Salinas
Hernandez got an email during the season formally inviting her to try out for Team Puerto Rico. Two days after Oklahoma eliminated UMass from the NCAA Tournament in May, she flew to Florida for a tryout.
"They said come to Miami. Buy a one-way ticket. We have a really good feeling that you'll make the team," she recalled.
Hernandez was one of three players to go from Miami to the 26-player tryout at the Puerto Rican Olympic Training Center.
"I flew home, packed a suitcase and I haven't been home since," she said.
In Salinas, home of Puerto Rico's Olympic Training Center, Hernandez took part in games and drills as the coaching staff trimmed the roster to 16 players. She found out she had made it when her jersey No. 33 showed up on the posted final roster.
"It was pretty exciting," Hernandez said.
She was particularly excited to face Team USA last week at the Canada Cup.
"Growing up those were my role models, and now I was playing against them. I never thought that day would come," she said. "It's obvious they're the best and everyone knows that."
Like most of the field, Puerto Rico struggled against the Americans, falling 10-0 in a mercy-rule shortened game. Overall Puerto Rico went 0-6 in Canada Cup play, but the event allowed the team to get used to playing together before more important events later in the summer.
The Puerto Rican team will head to Brazil for the Pan-Am Games (July 23-29) and then to Venezuela for an Olympic qualifier from Aug. 18 to 26.
"Every since I can remember I've watched the Olympics on TV and looked forward to them. It was always a dream since T-ball and Little League," she said. "But how many people can say it's right there? One week, one qualifier, you go or you don't go."
Whatever happens she's hoping to return to UMass a better player.
"I want to come back and be ready to take over someone like Candice's spot. Her numbers show how great of a player she was and we need someone to take over her spot," Hernandez said. "I can't imagine how much better I can get with the schedule that we're playing and training that we have. It's definitely good preparation for the fall and next season."
UMass coach Elaine Sortino said she is excited about Hernandez's potential for improvement.
"She had all the tools, but her opportunities to prove herself were limited this year," said Sortino, who hopes that Hernandez will seize the open center field spot next year. "It was always my conviction that a little bit of playing time would go a long way which is why I was always very supportive of her in this opportunity. I think it's great for her."
Connects with heritage
The experience, though, has been about more than just making the Olympics and even more than just softball for Hernandez.
She never met her paternal grandparents who were born in Puerto Rico but died before she was born. Now she has gotten to visit their homeland and connect with her heritage.
"It's really cool to see where my family comes from. My dad was born in the U.S., but he spent a lot of summers in Puerto Rico. He played professional basketball for a little while in Puerto Rico when he was younger," Hernandez said. "This is my first time coming here. It's definitely been a good experience." While her father speaks Spanish, Hernandez's knowledge of the language was minimal before she joined the team. Most of her teammates speak English, making it easier for her. And she has picked up some Spanish and is trying to learn more.
"A lot of the girls speak English and Spanish and they try to teach us things during the game and cheering your teammates on in Spanish," said Hernandez, who is a communications disorders major. "I want to work with children with speech therapy and speech and language pathology. Being bilingual will definitely help."
For now she's just enjoying the ride.
"This all kind of came out of nowhere," she said. "A year ago I could never have said I would be here. It's a great opportunity."
Matt Vautour can be reached at email@example.com. For more UMass coverage including a frequently updated UMass sports blog, go to www.dailyhampshiregazette.com/umsports.