During the wintertime in the 1970s, baseball thrived on the island, giving Jose Hernandez an excuse to tell his young sons about Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda. Major league baseball players – including those who called the island home – would flock to Puerto Rico before spring training to keep their skills sharp in the offseason.
Jose and Alec Hernandez would watch, listen to their father, and hope to one day make it as ballplayers and proudly represent their homeland, like Roberto Alomar, Carlos Beltran or Pudge Rodriguez.
“The opportunity to represent the dreams of so many kids who would love to represent Puerto Rico,” the younger Jose Hernandez said, “that’s a big deal.”
It’s why Hernandez, who moved with his family from Puerto Rico to South Jersey in 1980, was beaming with pride when he boarded a plane at New York City’s JFK Airport this spring. Walking in front of him, wearing a Puerto Rican Lacrosse jersey, was his 18-year-old daughter, Sophia.
“‘We have a team?!?’” Jose Hernandez recalled a few seated passengers asking as father and daughter walked up the aisle. “They were really excited. So I think a lot of Puerto Ricans are going to be super excited to be represented (on the world stage).”
Beginning Friday, Sophia Hernandez will take the field for her father’s native land at the Women’s Lacrosse 2019 U19 World Championship in Peterborough, Canada. Hernandez, who graduated from Eastern Regional High School last month, will suit up for Puerto Rico’s history-making national lacrosse team.
The international tournament will mark the first time Puerto Rico has competed in women’s lacrosse. Like Sophia Hernandez, the vast majority of the team is comprised of heritage players: women with parents or grandparents born in Puerto Rico.
“It’s been probably the greatest experience I’ve had,” Hernandez said. “Playing in high school and on a club team, I’m the only one. To go there and listen to all of the (other players) say, ‘I’m the only one at my school. And I’m the only one at my school or my club.’ I think that’s the best part. I’ve finally found people who are similar to who I am.
“Even in high school, there aren’t a lot of Hispanics at Eastern. So to be able to interact with people (of the same background) it’s the best feeling, knowing I’m not the only one. So that makes me even more excited, they all have that same fire. We’re going to do this.”
The confidence is not unfounded. Hernandez said Puerto Rico only first fielded a men’s team for an international tournament last summer and finished in eighth place at the World Games.
But for Hernandez, the experience goes beyond making history. She’s also thrilled to be able to take the opportunity to give back to Puerto Rico — she’s taken part in clinics to help introduce the sport to a country where it isn’t regularly played — and she’s honored to play in memory of Jose and Zenaida Hernandez.
When Sophia Hernandez was in Puerto Rico to help teach at a clinic in December, her grandfather, who was back in his homeland helping with Hurricane Maria damage, was in the hospital. He died before Christmas.
Five months later, Zenaida Hernandez — his widow, Jose’s mom, and Sophia’s grandmother — passed away on Mother’s Day.
“She had just passed when I got (to Puerto Rico) for the final tryout,” Sophia Hernandez said. “So that was the drive. They knew about this whole thing. To me, that was the most important part of it, that pushed me to do the best that I could, that this was for them.”
The younger Jose Hernandez, a lawyer based in Cherry Hill, put in two weeks of vacation time for the 11-day tournament and traveled to Canada this weekend with his wife and son. He’s proud of his daughter and knows his parents would be, too.
“Let me tell you, unbelievably proud,” he said. “I remember my dad taking me to see major league players in Winter ball. … The fact that she’s going to represent Puerto Rico is just incredible. I still can’t believe it. It’s an amazing opportunity.”
The World Championship will help Hernandez extend her playing career.
Beset with back injuries in high school, Hernandez gave up her Division-I dreams a while ago and focused instead on continuing her education at a prestigious academic environment. She’ll study behavioral neuroscience at Northeastern University in Boston beginning this fall.
A student-athlete who excels both on the field and in the classroom, Hernandez is just as honored to serve her family’s home island as she is to play her favorite sport on an international stage.
“I think the most important part is that we give back to the island,” she said. “After the storm, a lot happened and I know my family was affected by it greatly. To be able to go back and do little service projects. … I’ve been twice, I’ve done a clinic for young kids where we were able to donate, in partnership with U.S. lacrosse, over 100 sticks and equipment to a local sports camp on the island. There’s a guy that teaches them to play all different sports, keeps them occupied all afternoon and feeds them lunch and breakfast. That was the one project.
“The first I got involved with was the Pan-American Sports Conference in San Juan in December. It was an instructional clinic for over 600 college professors, high school teachers, elementary school teachers and even kids studying to be gym teachers, to teach them about the sport. There was a lot of buzz around that because there isn’t any lacrosse on the island. Everyone is running around with sticks in their hands and people are looking at it saying, ‘What is this?’” … It’s more than going out and playing lacrosse; it’s mostly about giving back. The lacrosse is the bonus on top of this.”