Elyssa Hernandez (right) is pictured training recently with the El Salvador U-17 national football team. Photo: La Selecta_SV

There it was on the Fox Sports 2 international broadcast of the CONCACAF Women’s U-17 soccer tournament. 

A player from El Salvador charged up and stole the ball from a Costa Rican opponent. The Costa Rican hooked her arm, held her and threw her. A foul was called and a free kick awarded to El Salvador.

“There is Hernandez pulling through,” commented announcer Mike Watts. “Pride of the Hollister Haybalers.”

That’s Elyssa Hernandez, a sophomore at Hollister High, making an elite play against the world’s top competition on the ultimate stage.

“Set piece for El Salvador,” Watts continued. Teammate Hailey Hernandez (no relation) took the free kick and blasted it over the keeper and just below the crossbar for a goal. A key play for El Salvador in their 2-2 tie with Costa Rica.

Elyssa Hernandez, of Hollister, has spent her winter competing with the El Salvador U-17 national football team. Hernandez recently returned to Hollister to compete with her home team at Hollister High. Contributed photo.

For Elyssa Hernandez, it was part of a dream realized early. Playing soccer at the international level. Hernandez was recently named to the El Salvador team and played extensively at her usual center back position, including starting the tournament’s third match and playing the full 90 minutes.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Hernandez, by phone from Mexico. “I was nervous at first but once I got in, I was less nervous and more relaxed. I knew I had to be at the top of my game. Fight for every ball. Fight for every pass. Play like I’m not going to let any forward get by me.”

From Hollister red. Out of the blue, a trial, and then a roster spot with the blue of El Salvador. It all came about very quickly.

Last season, as a freshman, Hernandez helped Hollister win a Central Coast Section Division IV title in late February and a NorCal Division V title in early March. She began her sophomore year with the Balers and then suddenly, a national team opportunity arose.

In December, Hernandez was invited to a tryout in San Francisco for the El Salvador U17 National Team. Dual US and Salvadoran citizenship comes via her mother Charlene Hernandez.

That two-hour session included drills and a mini-scrimmage. Afterward, El Salvador women’s national team coach Eric Acuna extended an invitation for a final trial in El Salvador. Hernandez traveled there and took part in intense training in the capital city of San Salvador.

“We had three trainings per day,” Hernandez said. “It was definitely intense. You had to give it your all. And it was hot and humid and we were on turf. You had to stay hydrated and take your electrolytes. It was definitely enjoyable and fun, but also challenging.”
Hernandez was picked for the national team roster. It was an emotional moment to learn one would compete on the international level.

“When I heard I made the team, I was very excited,” Hernandez said. “Representing the whole country, wearing the blue and supporting the country.”

Initial competition came fast, with the prominent CONCACAF U-17 tournament beginning on Feb. 1 CONCACAF is the Confederation of North, Central America and Caribbean Association Football. U-17 is for players born after January 1, 2007.

Eight teams would compete for two bids to the upcoming U-17 World Cup. The matches were held in Toluca, Mexico. Toluca, 30 miles west of Mexico City and at an elevation of 8,727 feet, is the headquarters of the Mexican Football Federation.

In the opener for El Salvador, Mexico topped them 3-0. Hernandez came on around the 70th minute and played about 30 minutes. 

“That was definitely one of the most technical and intense games I’ve ever played,” Hernandez said. “Our coach was into long balls and winning balls out of the air. I think I defended well. I blocked a couple shots. I won some 1-on-1 tackles. And had some long balls.”

The second contest went to Haiti by a score of 5-3. The third match was a 2-2 tie with Costa Rica. Acuna told her beforehand that she would start that one versus Costa Rica. Hernandez played the entire match.

“It was in a big stadium and there were cameras everywhere,” Hernandez said. “Our strategies were a little different. The coach wants a lot from you. Never walk, and always know where you are on the field. Things move fast during a game.”

The journey for Hernandez began locally, with the Hollister Tremors club. She later moved to Santa Clara Sporting, along with her high school play with the Balers. She cited keys to her success including family support, community support and of course, training with many coaches, including Hollister head coach Becky Bonner. 

Both parents Edgar and Charlene were college athletes and encouraged their children to try out different sports. Elyssa Hernandez loved soccer and put in the extra time, hard work and self-discipline to excel. Weight-training, extra practice by oneself or with a sibling, if one is fortunate to have an older brother such as Ezekiel Hernandez, a midfielder with the Balers, class of 2023, and now playing in college.

“My siblings are proud of me,” Hernandez said, referring to her older brother and also younger sister Elexa. “My brother and I trained for hours and hours together. He supported me in all my goals. I wouldn’t be here without him. He plays in college and I want to be like him and do that too.”

The parents and extended family were also excited and proud, from Hollister to El Salvador.

“This is surreal and definitely a proud moment for our family,” Charlene Hernandez said. “Our family is so ecstatic for her.”

Count her Baler teammates among her fans. Elyssa Hernandez referred to many texts of support. She cited their best wishes and congratulations.

“The girls have been cheering her on,” Bonner said. “They had a team dinner and watched together the first game on tape. It’s nice to see that happen. One even said, ‘I am just proud to know her’.”
Hernandez completed play in the tournament on Feb. 5, and flew home the following day. She looks forward to getting back on the soccer pitch with her fellow Balers for the remaining two games of the regular season and the upcoming CCS playoffs.

“I feel it’s been an amazing experience,” Hernandez said. “It improves me as a player and it challenges me. It was a very emotional and happy experience. And I also learned more about my Salvadoran culture and heritage. And for now, I hope to help Hollister again. If I can play against these players (at the CONCACAF tournament), I’ll definitely be less nervous and more relaxed in any CCS match.”

After a 2-1 victory over Rancho San Juan on Feb. 6, her teammates commented on seeing Hernandez again. 

Zamaya Rivera described her composure with the ball. Summer Forrest, who scored the winner against Rancho, added that Hernandez had worked so hard to get this achievement. A most eloquent comment came from Jimena Heredia, who scored Tuesday’s first goal.

“It’s exciting to see someone you know play on TV at that level,” Heredia said.

Hollister concludes the regular season at home against league champ Salinas on Feb. 13 at 5:45pm. CCS playoffs will follow.

“We’ve talked to CCS and she is good to go (on eligibility),” Bonner said. “The girls will be excited to have her. She is very talented and great at distributing the ball. She has great vision and sends the ball accurately. She is very calm and composed and keeps everyone settled, which is important at her (center back) position.”

Back home in the red and white of Hollister.

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