‘Hometown hero’ embraces Pride of the Valley at Fresno State

Senior Vanessa M. Hernandez catches the ball at first to get an out after a hit in the first game of the home series against San Diego State on March 26, 2022 (Wyatt Bible/ The Collegian)

Fresno has always been home to Vanessa Hernandez. 

Growing up just a short 15 minutes away in Sanger, Hernandez said she always knew she would attend Fresno State. When she was given the opportunity to receive a scholarship and play for the Bulldogs, it was a decision that required no thinking. 

Fresno State takes pride in being “For the Valley,” and Hernandez is one of the athletes to claim a deeper feeling for this saying because of her roots. 

“I take a lot of pride in it because I’m one of the few that are left,” she said. 

Hernandez grew up attending Fresno State softball games. Now at 22 and having nearly eight years of commitment to Fresno State softball, she said her pride for Fresno State all around goes deep.

Initially Hernandez didn’t plan on pursuing softball. Her focus was on basketball. After starting out in Junior Giants and later moving on to play recreational softball, she developed a love for the sport. 

Hernandez then moved to Fresno to join the Fresno Force softball team, which gave her the opportunity to play with committed Division 1 athletes, gaining exposure at a young age. 

“I joined that team my freshman year, and within one year of being on that team I had committed that summer,” Hernandez said. 

Hernandez gained exposure  not only from Fresno State, but from other schools such as Nebraska, which also had its eye on the young softball player. Her talent was strengthened by coaches who had experienced college level play, which helped her gain the attention from Division 1 schools.

Fresno State first baseman Vanessa M. Hernandez reaches home plate of the doubleheader against Saint Mary’s at Margie Wright Diamond on Saturday, April 17, 2021. (Vendila Yang/ The Collegian)

When she first joined Fresno Force, Hernandez played under Jeff Harger, who is now the assistant softball coach at Arizona State University. During her time at Sanger High School, she played under Erica Pennington, who played college softball at UNLV. 

Pennington said Hernandez’s “firecracker” energy and talent created her personality as a player. 

“Watching her develop through the four years was a joy. Her learning the game [and] learning strategy made her more of a threat on both sides of the game,” Pennington said. 

According to Pennington, Hernandez’s free spirit often created a fun environment in the dugout for the team. Pennington highlighted Hernandez’s tendency to dance and joke around, but said she was always ready to “grind” when needed.. 

“She had grown to be a vocal leader, and to communicate and pump her team up. [She believed] this was a team sport, and [that] you need your team to win… She grew into a leader,” Pennington said. 

Hernandez’s time playing high school softball foreshadowed her collegiate career, as her team at the time moved on to play in the Valley Championship at Margie Wright Diamond. 

Pennington emphasized the conversation she had with Hernandez at that game during her junior year. Even though the team came up short, it was the start of Hernandez making her mark at Fresno State. 

“I think it made her more tough and determined. She got to play again in the City County game, which hosts all elite senior players that graduating year. She did amazing and won an award for the game as well,” Pennington said. 

Despite visiting Nebraska and observing the attractions at other universities, she didn’t second guess her decision to come to Fresno State once her junior year of high school came. 

“Fresno State kind of stepped in and was like, here’s this offer, and [said] take your time on it. And I was like, no, I don’t need any time, I want to commit right now. And I ended up committing there. But I think it was for the best,” Hernandez said.

Pennington said Hernandez had the talent at a young age and knew the young athlete would be moving on to play college ball. But with her knowledge of Hernandez’s talent, Pennington noted that young athletes like that need to stay humble and earn their spot on the field rather than have it handed to them. 

“I know college for her was not a cakewalk, but she got through adversity and has stuck it out every year. I am so, so proud of her determination and dedication this far,” she said. 

Hernandez said that committing so early on in high school did leave her wondering if it had been too soon, but upon reflection the decision to stay close to home and her family was the right one for her.

“I never really got to explore my options, because my Mom had told me, ‘The longer you wait,  the less money you’re gonna get for this kind of scholarship.’ I didn’t want to be in a complicated position,” she said. 

Vanessa Hernandez at bat in the game against Loyola Marymount on March 30 at Margie Wright Diamond on Saturday, April 17, 2021. (Melina Kazanjian / The Collegian)

Hernandez said that her parents sacrificed a lot for her to play travel ball in high school, and emphasized that money is oftentimes a major draw for young athletes, as she personally experienced.  Joining clubs in high school helped her gain exposure from universities despite the cost.

“I literally tell them every day, I wish I could say enough thank you’s to show you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. They’ve worked so hard,” she said. 

Hernandez said that her parents sacrificed a lot for her to play travel ball in high school, and emphasized that money is oftentimes a major draw for young athletes, as she personally experienced.  Joining clubs in high school helped her gain exposure from universities despite the cost.

“I literally tell them every day, I wish I could say enough thank yous to show you how much I appreciate everything you’ve done for me. They’ve worked so hard,” she said. 

Hernandez said her method of giving back to her parents was  through finishing college. They requested she finish school and “finish well,” and being able to do so close to home is something Hernandez said she will always be thankful for.. 

Pennington also praised Hernandez’s decision to stay home and grow into a “hometown hero,” emphasizing the gratification that comes from watching someone she once coached continue to give back to her community through coaching and lessons.

“It was fun to watch the growth and leadership she produced and passed on to future generations of Apaches,” Pennington said. 

As Hernandez nears the end of her collegiate career, she said her time with the next generation of players is a priority.

“Life’s more than softball. …I feel like that’s the most important thing for me, interacting with the little kids, because I remember when I was there. I’m at that age and I’ve just been bigger than myself, and doing it for a bigger reason that’s other than myself. That’s [my] biggest takeaway.”

Vanessa Hernandez at first base in the game against UCF on March 9, 2022 at Margie Wright Diamond. (Melina Kazanjian / The Collegian)
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