When the NCAA season is in session, Mario Hernandez wears a Jacksonville Dolphins cap. He serves as a volunteer assistant coach for the school that competes in the ASun Conference. This summer, though, he’s wearing a different hat.
Hernandez is one of seven people serving as head coaches for the inaugural softball season of the Florida Gulf Coast League. Hernandez, along with his assistant coach Carsyn Gordon, leads the Manatee Squeeze. Now sporting a 9-3 record, the Squeeze are in second place in the league standings and are the only team to have beaten the 1st-place RiverMocs this season.
After his team’s quality start to the campaign, Hernandez chatted with JWOS about coaching in the FGCL; how he prepared for his role as head coach; why he believes summer softball is important; and more.
Justin’s World of Softball: How did you first get involved with the FGCL? How did you hear about the league?
Mario Hernandez: Erica [Ayers], my head coach over at Jacksonville, contacted Ryan Moore as soon as she heard that the league was going to happen. And Ryan asked her if there were any coaches on our staff that would be interested. So Ryan and I connected a while back, actually in the fall. And with me being the volunteer, I wanted to, so I was thinking about doing it, and then I kind of veered in the direction of not doing it. The only reason for that wasn’t because I didn’t want to, but I wanted to work camps in the summer, and connect, and network with different coaches. But once COVID hit, and we weren’t able to work any camps, I reached out to Ryan again and asked if these was any possibility. He initially told me that he wasn’t sure, but he came back a couple of days later and told me, ‘Hey man, let’s go.’ The last two months that I’ve interacted with [Ryan] have been amazing. He wants these players to just be kids, get to have fun with it, and he’s always looking out for us as coaches, too. Making sure that we have everything that we need. He’s an awesome guy to get to work for, and yeah, that’s how that happened.
JWOS: What was it like for you as a coach to have just three days from the time you met your players until your first game?
Hernandez: It was tough; it was hard. It was hard for Carsyn and I to evaluate. We had two scrimmage games and one hour and a half of practice, so we basically had twelve innings of play and an hour and a half of practice to see where everybody fit. And it wasn’t easy, so we’re even still trying to see where everybody is in the sense of the different lineups and whatnot, but I think the biggest thing is talking to [the players]and just getting to know them as people… we feel like we have a good idea where everyone fits at, but any coach will tell you that everything can change. Some kids will show you different things on a different days, some kids will show you the same, but it all comes down to putting the best team that we can out on the field.
JWOS: Walk me through your career resume, especially the coaching side of it.
Hernandez: So I started off by playing baseball at the University of Saint Francis. Prior to that, I was at Moraine Valley Community College. I played two years of JUCO ball and then transferred to an NAIA school. I started coaching a travel ball program when I was eighteen; it was a summer job, and I love to coach. It’s always been what I wanted to do for an actual career. Then in 2016, I was the president of operations, but not for the entire organization; just the softball side of the travel organization. I was giving lessons and I was working and that was kind-of my part-time job that I treated like a full-time job. After that, I coached at high school and then this past year was my first year at Jacksonville University.
JWOS: Tell me what the last couple of months were like for you as far as how you used the extra time to prepare for this FGCL season.
Hernandez:It’s been definitely a lot of studying about the players. I put together an Excel spreadsheet and put down how many doubles they hit, how many stolen bases, that kind of thing. I tried to watch as much film as I could dig up and try to get a feel for what I had as a team. I wanted to get an understanding of who each player was and what their strengths and weaknesses were. That was a bit later, though; my first step was that I wanted to find an assistant coach. My goal was to find somebody who I could trust, somebody that I respected, and somebody that was still fresh in the game and could really connect well with the athletes. And I reached out to Carsyn Gordon, and she loved every second of the opportunity and decided to commit, and we’ve talked every day for the last two months, just constant conversation with our thoughts on things. Lots of Xs and Os.
JWOS: How different is this position when you compare it to other jobs that you’ve had in your coaching career to this point?
Hernandez: It’s definitely challenging as the head coach. I talked to Erica, my head coach at Jacksonville, after the first week and she asked me how I liked it. I told that I love it, but it’s very challenging. A lot of the load is on your shoulders. I’m a very competitive guy; I love to win. And when we lost that first game, that opening game, I had a hard time sleeping at night. It was really tough to sleep, with the drive home; as an assistant, you still wear it and it still hurts when you get that loss, but you don’t really still feel it like a head coach. I was just sitting in my car and constantly tossing around in my head ‘what could I have done differently to win the ballgame and change the outcome?’ Maybe I should have done this, maybe I shouldn’t have done that. It’s very challenging, but I also love the challenge. I’m always trying to challenge myself to be better and to learn from the mistakes that I made; I know I’m going to make mistakes. And there are going to be things that I do that maybe I shouldn’t have and vice-versa. I tell the girls all the time that if I mess up, I’ll be the first one to admit that. I think accountability is huge, and I’m a firm believer in it. I know this is a summer league, but I’m very competitive and I really want to win this league. We’re not treating this as an “all fun, everybody gets to play” type of thing; we want to win it all.
JWOS: Why do you think a league like this is important, especially for the game of softball?
Hernandez: I think it’s incredibly important because the game of softball is growing very fast. And I think that this league needs to happen; it’s an awesome first time. COVID hit and it was so sad for the girls whose seasons got cut short, but this was perfect timing. I think the game needs this because the game is going to continue to grow. On the baseball side of it, you want to get looked at and have scouts see you to get drafted, but these girls are here because they just love to play. That’s one reason that I love coaching softball is because the girls genuinely love the game and want to play. They just love to play softball. When you see the TV numbers going up, and the popularity going up… I think the game needs this league, and I think it’s going to continue to grow and it’s going to be awesome to be able to say ‘I was part of the first year of the FGCL softball league.’ We’ve got some really good talent down here, and I think it’s really important for these girls to band together and help grow this game.
JWOS: Final question here for you. Outside of the obvious of winning a championship, what do you want to see happen this summer, both for you as a coach and for your team?
Hernandez: The biggest thing that I want to see is the girls getting better. I want them to be able to reach out down the road and say ‘you know, I brought this back to my program and it’s really working for us.’ I’m working to impact their lives in a positive way, whether that’s on the field or off. At the end of the day, it’s about them. It’s about having fun and about them being successful in life… to see the kids happily banding together, it makes me feel like we’re impacting their lives in a positive way and that makes me really happy. Obviously, we want to win but at the end of the day, I think the biggest thing is for them to have a great summer and a great experience and takeaway something that’s going to help them out in the future.