WOODSTOCK — Adam Bottone clearly remembers the first day he saw Paula Hernandez play volleyball at Woodstock Academy.
“I spoke with Aaron Patterson, the athletic director at the time, and he said there was this girl who was displaced from Puerto Rico,” Bottone, Woodstock’s head coach, said of that fall day in 2017. “She’s up here with some relatives because of Hurricane Maria and she loves volleyball.”
“Is it OK if she comes to practice and you can evaluate here from there?” Patterson asked.
Bottone’s team already had a complete roster. But, sympathetic to the situation, Bottone agreed.
“At the beginning of practice, I said to the girls: Here’s the situation, she’s going to come to practice and if she’s great, that’s awesome, and if she’s an average player, that’s good too,” Bottone said. “We’re going to keep her, regardless. That way she would have some sense of community and connectiveness to a place that’s completely strange and new to her.”
When Hernandez arrived at the gym that afternoon, the players welcomed her and gave her knee pads, spandex and a shirt for practice.
When she made her first pass, Bottone was impressed.
“Just the ease and the fluidness of what she did … I could tell she was going to be good,” he said.
Shifted to offense, Hernandez went up for a hit. The ball slammed into the floor and, for a moment, the gym was silent.
“She went up and had a kill and when she made the kill, the girls just stopped,” Bottone said. “And then they started clapping because it was the best thing they’d ever seen. I had this big smile on my face and the girls said, ‘Coach, we’ve never seen you smile this much in your life.’”
The Centaurs have been doing plenty of smiling since.
Hernandez was well-versed in the sport when she arrived in Connecticut, having honed her skills while playing competitively from a young age in Puerto Rico.
Now a senior at Woodstock, she has helped the Centaurs win two ECC championships and reach the state finals twice, and is also the reigning CHSCA Player of the Year.
Perhaps most important, Hernandez found another family within the Woodstock Academy volleyball team and the school’s community.
“I came here to talk to the administration one day, they showed me around and I really liked it,” Hernandez said of her first day at Woodstock. “I came to a practice and I really liked the volleyball team because it seemed like a really good team. And I loved that everyone was really accepting of me. I was happy I stayed.”
Hernandez’s journey is a remarkable one. It began with tragedy as her home in Puerto Rico was hit with two Category 5 hurricanes in September, 2017.
The first, Hurricane Irma, was north of the island but still caused major damage.
Hurricane Maria came next.
“With Hurricane Irma, there was a lot of stuff that didn’t affect us directly,” Hernandez said. “Then Hurricane Maria — my parents were like: That’s not going to happen. We’re going to be fine. The house is going to hold it.”
Maria hit Puerto Rico directly, however, and devastated the island. It knocked out power to 95% of the homes and cut off communities across the island.
Hernandez’s family home was among those destroyed by the storm.
“I had to return to my house that night and after that moment, my life was nowhere to be found,” Hernandez said.
“So I decided to come to the United States five days afterwards because I didn’t have a lot of food. I didn’t have water or anything, and it was really rough. My sister found me a plane because she’s a flight attendant, so I was pretty lucky because I came here early and I was on-time for joining the volleyball team.”
While Hernandez was staying with relatives in the Northeast corner of Connecticut, her aunt had recommended she take a look at Woodstock Academy.
“She had obviously gone through a pretty significant event in her life, being uprooted and coming here,” Bottone said. “Her English wasn’t that great. You’re always going to be sympathetic to somebody who’s been in a situation like what she’s been through.
“She literally came here with one suitcase and what was on her back.”
Being in what was essentially a new world was made even more difficult by the lack of communication with her parents back in Puerto Rico.
“It was very rough,” Hernandez said. “My parents had to be in a car for half-a-month and I couldn’t talk to them every day. I had no course or direction because everything was really new to me. So everything that was happening, I didn’t process a lot of it.
“It was intimidating in some ways because obviously there’s a very big gap between Puerto Rican culture and American culture. It was hard to me to think that maybe people wouldn’t like me. But because of how accepting the volleyball team was, it was very nice for me and it was a very smooth transition. Everyone was really accepting of me and that made it better.”
Woodstock had an excellent team at the time and had started the season 7-3. The players quickly embraced Hernandez, even before seeing her perform.
“The group of girls here at the time was phenomenal and said yes, absolutely,” Bottone said. “It speaks a lot to the character of the players who were here.”
With the addition of Hernandez, an already good team became elite. The Centaurs won their next 16 matches, capturing the 2017 ECC Division I championship and reaching the Class L tournament final before falling to RHAM.
The 2018 team again won the ECC Division I crown and went 24-1, with the one loss coming to Joel Barlow in the CIAC Class L final.
The victories were plentiful, but Hernandez became more than just a great athlete for Woodstock.
“She’s a really good volleyball player, but even more so, she’s become a really big part of the community,” Bottone said. “It’s not just volleyball, it’s the whole school community in general.”
Even with all the prior accolades, Hernandez’s most significant achievement on the volleyball court may be with this year’s team, which features an almost entirely new cast of players.
“The girls who went to the state championship two years ago was a group that, when they were sophomores, saw a lot of playing time and took their lumps,” Bottone said. “Their junior year, we were a good, established team and then Paula came and made it even better.
“Now, the chemistry we had for three years was shuffled. So, trying to grasp how everyone played and how we’d work together was a struggle.”
Hernandez took on the role of a senior leader, working with her teammates and becoming much like an extra coach.
“She’s taken it upon herself to work with other girls individually to help them along,” Bottone said. “They’re getting more valuable feedback from someone like her, who’s out there in the trenches with them. That’s an area in which her leadership has grown.”
The result has been another exceptional season. The Centaurs are 17-5 heading into a second-round contest against Barlow in the Class L playoffs on Thursday.
This season’s success has been very satisfying for Hernandez.
“It’s been a big run for Woodstock because from what I’ve heard, we’ve been part of the most successful teams that they’ve had,” Hernandez said. “This year, I know what it feels like (to win) even more because we’ve really worked for it. Last year we had a team that had played together for a few years and we had more experience, so it was easier. But now it’s a lot of hard work, so it’s a good feeling when we win.”
With high school graduation seven months away, Hernandez has been looking to colleges where she will begin the next chapter of her life. That will include volleyball, but not as the main focus.
“She’s always been very realistic about what college brings for volleyball,” Bottone said. “It’s always been her overall (thought) that volleyball is the catalyst to get her into school. Whether that means that she gets academic financial aid at a (Division III) school because of how good she is in volleyball, then so be it, or if she gets a scholarship to a D1 school, that’s good too.
“But she’s always been very practical that it’s school first, and the sport second because she knows she’s not going to make a living out of that.”
Hernandez mentioned Connecticut College as a possible destination, although the possibilities are seemingly endless for someone with her ability and drive. She would like to become a teacher, but has many interests and is genuinely enthusiastic about all of them.
“Hopefully, I get to play in college if everything happens and I find a good place,” Hernandez said. “I want to be so many things, but I have two past generations of teachers in my family and I’ve gotten to see the profession, how you live, what kind of time you have for your own.
“And I have a lot of ambitions besides my career. I’d like to own my own business and I think teaching is a profession that allows you to do a lot of things with other people and in your own life. I want to have a good balance and help students learn Spanish, and learn more about other cultures, and have my own florist business.”
As for Woodstock Academy, the Centaurs for the past three years have had both a great member of the school community, and a unique talent on their volleyball court.
“It’s a rarity, especially out here in the sticks of northeastern Connecticut,” Bottone said. “More like once-in-a-lifetime.”