Volleyball has always been in a constant in Paula Hernandez’s life.
“I used to play in my yard with my sisters and cousins and they thought I was pretty strong,” said Hernandez. “I started playing, but I quit because I got hit in the face. After a few months I tried again and I stayed forever.”
Hernandez, now a senior at Woodstock Academy, said that playing volleyball is a part of who she is. Her mom agreed.
“We are in the courts, like, the whole year,” said Lizbeth Aulet Alicea, Hernandez’s mother. “I mean this is everything for me.”
It is hard to miss Hernandez’s skills on the volleyball court. Her coach said she is a leader, a powerhouse and an all-around “good person.” He was not surprised that she was named Gatorade’s 2019-2020 Connecticut Volleyball Player of the Year; an honor that Hernandez achieved through adversity.
In 2017 Hurricane Maria pounded Puerto Rico, destroying Paula’s home.
“We just left the house,” said Alicea. “The next day when we came back, it was gone. It was terrible.”
One week after the hurricane, as Hernandez’s family was running out of food and living with no electricity, she had the opportunity to leave the island and go to Connecticut to stay with family. Hernandez’s sister is a flight attendant and was able to get her out of Puerto Rico at no cost.
“I could either go to Pennsylvania, Florida or Connecticut,” said Hernandez. “I decided to come here and I realized it was the right choice.”
Hernandez enrolled in Woodstock Academy in October, one month into the volleyball season, but Coach Adam Bottone was willing to work with her and make her feel as welcome as possible.
“I went to the team and I was like ‘we have this girl coming. I don’t know anything about her. She was displaced. She lost everything,’ and basically, she is going to be on our team,” said Bottone. “Even if she was terrible.”
Hernandez was definitely not terrible, though.
“When I saw her just make her first pass, I had this slight smile that came across my face,” said Bottone.
Bottone said Hernandez joined an already talented team and propelled the team to the state championship game. He said that over her two and a half years at Woodstock, Hernandez had over 1,000 career kills.
She was named Connecticut High School Coaches Association Player of the Year for the 2018 season. This year she was awarded the prestigious Gatorade Connecticut Volleyball Player of the Year. Hernandez is the first girl in the history of Woodstock Academy to receive a Gatorade award.
The award comes with a $1,000 check. Hernandez donated her gift to a Puerto Rican relief fund.
The 17-year-old found a family at Woodstock Academy. It also offered her own family, who was still in Puerto Rico, a bright light amidst destruction.
Her mother moved to Connecticut in 2018, but lived one year apart from Hernandez. She said that she and her husband used to drive until they could find a signal to listen to Paula’s games on the radio.
“It helped my parents get through a bad time,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez’s family is rebuilding their Puerto Rico home, but she said she thinks she will always live in America.
“I am always going to be Puerto Rican, but I just love being here,” said Hernandez.
Hernandez will attend Eastern Connecticut State University in the fall to play volleyball.
“If you work hard enough for things and you do them with the right intentions, everything is going to work out,” said Hernandez.