She was named to the Olympic Development Program's 2019 Southeast Zone team
Sophia Hernandez lives her life by the “If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all” motto, instilled in her by her family.
The Riverview High freshman is calm while answering questions and giggles when talking about her love of “The Flash” and shrimp tempura. Hernandez does not seem the personality type to excel in a sport as aggressive as water polo, but excel she has.
Hernandez was named to the 2019 USA Water Polo Olympic Development Program's (ODP) Southeast Zone team on Dec. 29. The team selects the best players from Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Alabama, Mississippi and Tennessee. It was an honor Hernandez said she did not expect.
“I was really excited,” Hernandez said. “It is a big opportunity for me. I also just love to meet new water polo players. I hope to eventually see other countries and how they play.”
Hernandez plays for the Gulf Girls Water Polo team, which practices at Venice High. Matching her opponents’ propensity for physicality can be challenging, Hernandez said, but sometimes it becomes too much and she is forced to give as good as she gets.
She, and every water polo player, endures a lot. Getting her legs grabbed and pulled. Getting pushed underwater. Once, Hernandez said, an opponent tried to rip down her swimsuit, but Hernandez was able to prevent it.
Through the physicality shines skill, something Hernandez possesses in the eyes of both the ODP and her Gulf Girls coach, Beth Bailey.
“She is very intimidating when pressing (on defense) and has a tremendous range for blocking passes, which creates turnovers,” Bailey said.
“Sophia has such a positive attitude. That combined with her physical talent will take her far.”
Water polo is a sport that on the surface seems a perfect candidate for prosperity in Sarasota. It requires strong swimmers, something the area has plenty of, and adds more of a team element than swimming offers. A simple way to think of it is a combination of basketball and soccer, but in the water.
Yet opportunities for talented area players such as Hernandez to play are scarce.
Gulf Girls is a winter team, running Nov. 3 to Jan. 20. There is only one full-time water polo club in Sarasota County, and that is Sun Coast Water Polo, which is based out of the Venice YMCA. One high school — Venice High — has a team, and the Indians’ upcoming season will be their first.
Hernandez makes the half-hour trek to Venice - assuming normal traffic - three times a week. She travels with either teammates or a family member. It can be a nuisance, Hernandez said, but it is the only way she can play her favorite sport, so her treks will continue.
Hernandez has talked with her friends about the sport, she said, but they all either are busy playing other sports or don’t appear to take water polo into serious consideration.
If the sport was more accessible, kids would likely be more willing to try it. Bailey said she believes there is talent in the area that will go unnoticed without more schools offering the sport. Bailey would know: five players from her 13-person Gulf Girls team made the regional ODP team.
While it would be convenient for Hernandez to play closer to home, the distance between her and her pool will not stop her from swimming her own path to greatness.