Even a former national high school player of the year can feel a bit like a fish out of water when making the leap to college sports.
Dalton High School graduate Omar Hernandez racked up accolades during his time playing soccer for the Catamounts. His senior season of 2019 ended with Dalton finishing the year undefeated and with a state title, and Hernandez was recognized as the Gatorade National Player of the Year.
Still, he arrived on campus at Wake Forest University a few weeks after being presented with the prestigious trophy and had to adjust on the fly.
“It had to be a pretty quick adjustment. The very first day of training, you could just tell that the talent was different and the speed was different. I had to adapt pretty quick,” Hernandez said.
Hernandez made that adjustment quickly enough to appear in all 23 of Wake’s matches, scoring a goal and dishing four assists on the season. His sophomore year saw him take an increased role, when Hernandez started 12 of 18 games and was second on the team with six goals from his spot in the midfield. Two of those goals came in a victory over Coastal Carolina in the 2020 national championship tournament.
By his junior season in 2021, Hernandez became a full-time starter. He tallied five goals and three assists while helping the Demon Deacons to the third round of the NCAA tournament. The former Dalton star was named third-team All-Atlantic Coast Conference.
Hernandez sees much growth in both his game even since he was winning awards in high school.
“From freshman year, I was that quiet kid and afraid to make mistakes,” Hernandez said. “Now, it just feels like it’s part of the game. Mistakes are going to happen. You just have to keep playing.”
The former Catamount standout starts his senior campaign when Wake Forest opens the 2022 season next month.
“Now, being a senior, my coach looks at me to help be a leader for the guys,” Hernandez said. “I try to give advice to the younger guys and help them out in any way I can.”
Hernandez still has a possible year of eligibility remaining after the upcoming season — the NCAA granted athletes an extra season of eligibility because of COVID-19 — but he’s not sure yet whether he’ll take it or move on to his next pursuit. Hernandez plans to pursue a career in professional soccer after college.
“I haven’t really communicated with the coaches yet about it,” Hernandez said. “I haven’t really thought about it yet either. It’ll just depend on how this season goes.”
Hernandez hopes to be selected in the Major League Soccer draft when his college career wraps up. At Wake Forest, Hernandez is studying communications. He’ll graduate next year, and Hernandez hopes to possibly be a soccer broadcaster.
“I would love to be able to play professionally as long as I can,” Hernandez said. “I would love to stay within something involving sports, because I love sports.”
Hernandez has only been out of high school for three years, but he said he’s proud of the growth his hometown of Dalton has shown in soccer even since he was helping the Catamounts win state titles.
Three teams from Whitfield County won state championships in 2021, and two more did it in 2022. The town has since been dubbed Soccertown, USA.
“I take great pride in Dalton and the city. I’m excited about all the talent in soccer,” Hernandez said. “It’s a small town, but anyone can be good at soccer and go to college or make it in the pros. With the right connections or the right people to help them out, they can do anything with their lives.”