All Area Girls Wrestler of the Year: Donna High state champion Precious Hernandez

After two days of wrestling practice, Donna High’s Precious Hernandez was ready to quit.

“I told my mom that this wasn’t for me,” she said. “She told me to give it a week.”

The week came and went. Nothing changed. Hernandez still wanted to quit. This time, her mom had a different response.

“She told me I couldn’t quit,” Hernandez said. “Since she was my ride home, I stayed with it.”

She stayed with it all four years and it paid off this season as Hernandez, a senior, captured the 2020 UIL state championship in the Class 5A, 215-pound girls division. Hernandez became just the third girls wrestler — and first heavyweight — from the Valley to return with a state championship. She is The Monitor’s All-Area Girls Wrestler of the Year.

Hernandez ran through the regular season undefeated before falling to Sharyland Pioneer’s Camila Flores in the finals of the district tournament. She met Flores again in the regional tournament, beating Flores by pin. In the state tournament, Hernandez peaked, winning all four matches, three by pins and the other in the semifinals against Northwest’s Autumn Bradley with a 4-1 decision.

She ended her high school wrestling career in an All-Region IV matchup against Corpus Christi’s Ray’s Mia Epps-Hicks, winning with a pin in 2 minutes, 17 seconds.

Hernandez had faced Epps-Hicks the previous year and pinned the then-sophomore in less than 20 seconds.

“I think that helped and hurt at the same time that I had beaten her before,” Hernandez said. “I knew she wasn’t impossible to beat, but it also hurt because I couldn’t be overconfident. I remembered the first time we met, I was pretty afraid. I didn’t take too many shots, but I did then and just took her down and pinned her.”

This time, however, Hernandez found herself down 1-0 and knew she had to do something about it. It all started when Epps-Hicks deferred the choice to be on top or bottom.

“I knew the smart thing to do was choose bottom and escape for the points,” Hernandez said.

She didn’t choose bottom, however. She went with starting on top.

“I remember the first period was really scary and she was a lot stronger than when we previously met; she dominated me and I needed to build up strength to make my move,” Hernandez said. “I chose top and that ended up being the best choice I could’ve made.”

The whistle blew to start the second period and Epps-Hicks tried to make her move. Instead, however, Hernandez quickly broke her down and flipped her on her back.”

“I’m not sure how long she was on her back but it was the longest time of my life, waiting for the referee to call it,” Hernandez said. “She was slipping and I was using all my strength. I got the three back points but was able to turn it into a pin.”

That’s when the words “state champion” were attached to “Precious Hernandez.”

She started hearing those words as a junior as head coach Raul Cardenas and assistant coach Marcus Bowen kept telling her that she was a future state champ. She had already shocked the district by winning the district title as a freshman against a much more experienced and higher ranked wrestler. But a state champion was a long way away.

“It happened in 1961,” Cardenas said about the Valley’s only state championship football team. “And there have been other state champs from Donna. Coach Bowen preaches it more than anyone. The kids are believing more and she comes home with one and others are believing. Precious has been a breath of fresh air and getting kids to believe in themselves.”

Hernandez even spoke to the Donna High boys basketball team before their bi-district playoff game. The Redskins won the game 52-47 to earn their first playoff win since the 2014-2015 season. Cardenas said that Hernandez is more than just a state champion. She’s also a vocal leader that’s highly respected by teammates — both girls and boys.

“Captains on the boy’ team respected her leadership,” Cardenas said. “If she saw one boy doing something wrong, she would say something and get then to pick it up. Even as coaches, if we would lose focus, she would get on us and keep us on track.”

Wrestling is still a fledgling sport in the Valley but growing at a rapid pace. The Donna program just completed its sixth season, five under the tutelage of Cardenas.

Cardenas remembers walking through P.E. class and seeing how flexible Hernandez was as a freshman. She had participated in the drill team and had learned several dances and credits that flexibility to the dance training. That footwork came in handy in both the regional and state finals. Knowing her strengths help as well, Cardenas said.

“She plays multiple games. She knows her strengths and how to break you down, it’s something we work on daily,” Cardenas said. “Usually we would choose bottom in the position she was in, but she chose top. She broke her down, used that footwork and jumped over her to walk it around. And she knows how to finish. She had to readjust when she felt the girl slipping, and she did it.

“She knows what she wants to do, control the head, control the action and she will work to finish you quickly. She’ll let you make your mistake though, too. In the state final the mistake came when her opponent deferred. That gave her the opportunity to choose top. And she finished her.

While the state championship means a lot to Hernandez personally, she said she’s even happier about the bigger picture and the statement it brings back to the community.

“The first tournament I wrestled in as a freshman, I ended up winning. I had gone 8-0 before I lost and took that one really hard; I was a freshman and thought, ‘I’m invincible, I’m the best.’ I was very overconfident. I started crying, and threw a tantrum,” Hernandez said. “That loss changed everything for me. That loss is why I became a better wrestler.

“When the coaches would tell me I would be a state champ, I just thought they were crazy,” she said. “I could never do that, I’m just a kid from Donna. What can I do? Kids from Corpus and bigger cities were bigger and stronger. They were the ones who won state championships.

“But I did it and others can, too. They just have to believe first.”

hmiller@themonitor.com