When Ramón Hernàndez first arrived on the Perm State campus four years ago, he spoke little English, had no friends and was terrified by the differences between Puerto Rico and Pennsylvania. "I saw cows and farms, and it was cold," says Hernàndez, who was raised in Bayamon, P.R. "I spent the first month crying, wondering if I had made the right decision."
On Saturday night in another cow and farm town, Fort Wayne, Ind., Hernàndez removed any lingering doubts he might have had about the choice he made four years ago. And there were more tears, but this time they were tears of joy because he had just led Penn State to the most stunning victory in NCAA volleyball history, as it came from behind to upset defending champion and heavily favored UCLA 9-15, 15-13, 4-15, 15-12, 15-12.
As soon as the final point was scored, Hernàndez leaped on top of the press table, screaming, crying and punching the air with both fists. He would say later that he was expressing his gratitude to the fans, to his school and to Puerto Rico, where he will return to next month with a business degree in hand. "This will mean so much to my people back home," the 6'3" outside hitter said of the title, tears streaming down his face.
It was also a victory for the other 56 schools outside of California that have been trying to gain respect in this sport. In the 24 years of the NCAA volleyball tournament, only California schools have won the national championship and only twice before had a school outside California even made it to the final. The meaning was not lost on Hernàndez and his teammates. "They said we didn't belong, that we shouldn't even be here competing with West Coast schools," said Penn State junior outside hitter Ed Josefoski, who grew up in Pittsburgh. "But we're here now, and West Coast, we beat your best."
That they did. After defeating Ball State in the semifinals, the Nittany Lions went on to end UCLA's 27-match winning streak in the title match behind Hernàndez's career-high 38 kills. Down 6-0 and then 11-4 in the fourth game, Penn State rallied to win, tying the match at two games apiece. With the fifth game tied at 12, Hernàndez gathered his teammates and told them to keep calm. "Ramón said the pressure was on them, not on us," said Josefoski. "He's been our leader all year. He kept everyone together, and that's what won it for us."
Penn State coach Tom Peterson discovered Hernàndez during a 1990 recruiting trip to Puerto Rico. "I was also playing baseball and basketball when I met Coach Peterson, but he gave me the chance for a volleyball scholarship," says Hernàndez, who narrowed his focus and has spent the past three summers playing for Puerto Rico's national team. "It was easy to say yes."
Hernàndez, whose father is a lawyer and whose mother is a nurse, says that the months in State College gradually became easier as he learned more English and grew accustomed to the weather. "The weather's the worst thing for these kids," says Peterson. "I think Ramón thought he would freeze to death."
After Saturday night's match Hernàndez, a first-team All-America this year, was voted tournament MVP, the announcement of which caused even more tears. "He's an emotional player," said UCLA coach Al Scates, "and he hurt us. He hit so many balls, I don't think he has a shoulder left."
He did have enough of a shoulder to hoist the championship trophy high above his head. "I can't explain what I feel right now," he said. "I'm so hoarse, and my heart is beating so fast. We did this as a team, and I am crying." Of course.
The Puerto Rican senior helped Penn State net a historic NCAA championship.