Oak Park and River Forest senior and two-time, all-state wrestler Jaime Hernandez endured a frustrating and disappointing freshman season.
Oftentimes, there were even a few tears.
“Oh yeah. I wouldn’t say every day, but a couple of times a week,” Hernandez said. “My (practice) partners were just brutal. I got my butt kicked around, but it helped me in the long run. I love what happened to me freshman year – in a good way.”
By the end of last season, Hernandez was the recipient of the Huskies’ annual Tough Guy Award.
At 138 pounds, Hernandez finished second at the Class 3A individual state meet and accomplished the feat despite having his left eye basically closed after a head butt during the second period of the quarterfinals.
“His progression has been one that was much more about building toughness and building confidence,” OPRF coach Paul Collins said. “You had to push him to get him to believe in himself.”
Hernandez went from not even advancing to sectionals as a freshman to that summer winning a Greco-Roman state title and taking second at the USA Wrestling Cadet freestyle nationals.
Significant progress with the Huskies resulted in taking fourth at 2015 state at 132. On Saturday, Hernandez (11-0) won the Leyden Regional title at 138 as is No. 2 in the IllinoisMatmen.com rankings behind Glenbard North senior Austin Gomez (42-1), last year’s 126 state champion.
Hernandez also has been impressive in the classroom, getting As and some Bs as he prepares to compete for the University of North Carolina. His major is undecided.
“As long as I’m going straight up, I’m happy with what I’m doing. And I’ve got the best (training) partners in the state, in the country,” Hernandez said.
Then there’s simply pure desire.
Hernandez displayed that last year at individual state as his eye continued to worsen throughout his final three matches. He held on to win 3-1 in the quarterfinals and 8-3 in the semifinals and only lost to Marmion graduate AJ Jaffe 4-2 for the title.
“For the semis, I was like, ‘I don’t know how I’m going to do this.’ It was like wrestling with an eye covered,” Hernandez said. “The coaches kept telling me, ‘You’re ready, you’re good. We’re not using this as an excuse.’ I just put that in my mind. If I wrestle hard with one eye, then I’ve got to do what I’m got to do.”
For the team state finals the following weekend, Hernandez’s eye was recovering. Then he took another shot.
“What he did at the state tournament and team state, (his award) was a no-brainer,” Collins said. “The fact that he could go out and compete at that level that many matches literally with one eye, competing with nationally-ranked guys (was impressive).”
These days in the practice gym, Collins said Hernandez is the one showing leadership for his partners, pushing them to become their best.
“Honestly, I think it’s just putting in the work and making sure you’re going hard and doing everything right – eating right, sleeping right,” Hernandez said. “That’s what I really changed freshman year to now and not to be scared. I was scared freshman year. I’ll admit it. Then I just started getting a lot more confidence in myself. Big wins, they’re going to come.”