But no more.
The Norwalk junior believes the time is now — early in the high school wrestling offseason — to capitalize on what he called the best tournament he’s ever wrestled.
“Offseason wrestling makes season wrestling state champions,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez went 6-1 in the 170-pound weight class for the junior grade division at the NHSCA High School Nationals last weekend in Virginia Beach. The national runners-up finish saw him beat three state champions from Wyoming, Idaho and Georgia, and a state finalist from Kentucky en route to his title match appearance. In the finals, he lost a tough, 3-2 decision, to a state champion from Arizona, who wrestled for a college preparatory school.
“I got a confidence boost right away when I came in as the No. 4 seed,” Hernandez said. “I wasn’t really expecting that. I thought I’d come in as a lower seed or even unseeded, so that alone was a confidence booster before I even wrestled.”
The Nationals are considered the crown jewel of high school wrestling. In Hernandez’s bracket were 54 state placers and 16 state champions among the 103 kids who competed.
Hernandez also bumped up 10 pounds from 160 — where he reached the Division II state title match at the OHSAA championships on March 9 in Columbus.
“I practiced with Coach (Chris) Estep to get ready. He helped me with some of the things we noticed even at state a few weeks ago that were kind of going wrong,” Hernandez said. “That was the majority of the reason why I did so well this weekend. I wrestled what I felt is the best tournament I’ve ever wrestled.”
He opened his tournament with a 6-1 decision over state champion Rowdy Pfeil (Wyoming), then beat Florida’s Matthew Vann by pin. Hernandez dominated state champ Broddey Cunningham (Idaho) with a pin at the 4:34 mark in the Round of 32, and again won by pin at the 2:46 mark over New York state placer Kaul Runfola.
His quarterfinal win was a 3-2 decision over Georgia state champion Jakeem Littles, then Hernandez beat Kentucky state finalist Micah Ervin with a 6-5 decision to reach the championship match.
“I guess it really shows how tough wrestling is in Ohio,” Hernandez said. “I’ve never won state, and I beat multiple state champions and pinned some of them. I guess that shows how great our state is in wrestling. That is something that stands out to me the most after this weekend.”
In Sunday’s title match, Hernandez took a shot with 1:22 left in the first period, but Arizona’s Tanner Mendoza was able to counter it and turn it into two points at the 1:01 mark — which proved to be the only offensive points in the match.
In the final 30 seconds, Mendoza was able to block four different attempts by Hernandez down the stretch to hold on for the win.
In a 6-2 loss to Carrollton’s Ben Pasiuk in the state title match on March 9, Hernandez also managed just two escape points.
“It’s something that is going to have to change, and something I’ll try and work off this offseason,” Hernandez said of the lack of scoring in the title matches. “I need to try to make more angles and get around those hard, defensive wrestlers.
“So far those have been my kryptonite in the finals,” he added. “If I can figure out a way to get a takedown out of the way early, I don’t think I’ll be touchable in that spot.”
Another big benefit to the performance last weekend was the exposure to college coaches.
“I’ve been getting calls from colleges since midseason, but I had I kind of put them in the back of my head until after the season,” Hernandez said. “This weekend, it definitely opened up a lot of doors and more colleges have been contacting me. I chose to go to nationals this year to truly see how good I am compared to the rest of the country, but also because there was a lot of college scouts there, so I knew it would be good to get attention.
“I’m very blessed to have those opportunities,” he added. “It’s something I’ve been dreaming of as a kid, and for it to be actually happening is pretty special.”
In two months, Hernandez will compete with Ashland Crestview wrestlers at the team dual nationals back in Virginia Beach.
In the meantime, he’s focused in on becoming Norwalk’s first state champion since Dan Pugh in 1972. Hernandez was the first Norwalk state finalist in 27 years last month after a 53-4 season record.
Also a third-place finisher in 2018, Hernandez is 144-16 in his career at Norwalk. For the first time in program history, the Truckers had four state placers and finished in sixth in the Div. II team standings — also their highest finish.
“Right now, it’s back to the weight room to get stronger,” he said. “It’s probably one of my weaknesses. I’m quick and fast enough to do the things that I do, but sometimes I get with these stronger kids and kind of struggle with them.
“So overall, I thought it was the best I’ve ever wrestled last week, and I just want to really build on that,” Hernandez added. “Open mats starts later this month already. That was one thing we didn’t do early enough last year. Entering our senior season, we want to go out with a bang. I feel like we can do even more next year if we stay dedicated and get back in that room as soon as possible.”