FORT SMITH — Carlos Hernandez has returned to his roots this season, and the University of Arkansas-Fort Smith men’s cross country team couldn’t be happier.
After a tough season a year ago, Hernandez turned to former prep coach Rick Miller to craft a rebound plan for his junior campaign. Different training. Different state of mind. It’s safe to say it works, as Hernandez reset the 8k school record in three consecutive races ahead of this weekend’s event.
“Last year wasn’t my best year, and at the end I was exhausted,” Hernandez said. “Training wasn’t what I wanted. It just didn’t work out for me. Over the summer I sat down with my old high school coach and went over the season and the “We’ve been planning all year. It’s really work for me. Being consistent and working smarter has helped me cut my times this year.
Hernandez grew up playing football when he was in college. He loved sports but found his passion for running when he added it for conditioning to take the sport a little more seriously. Running became his passion during his freshman year of high school, and he never looked back.
Hernandez, a business student, started the year by leading the Lions to an eighth-place finish at the Memphis Twilight Classic. He finished 21st in 21:12.36 in the 4-mile race. It was a solid effort for the opening event of the year, but Hernandez was just getting started. He took his abilities to another level in the next three races. Hernandez, who clocked a season-best 8k time of 27:28.3 last year, set the school record in the 8k at the Missouri Southern Stampede with a time of 26:02.04. It was good enough for 53rd place in a stacked field. Hernandez followed that record performance with another a little closer to Fort Smith.
At the Chili Pepper Festival in Fayetteville, he once again led the team with a top five in the 8K. He clocked 25:45.3. Then racing just a 25-minute drive from his hometown of Grapevine, Texas, ahead of friends and family at Old Glory Gallup, Hernandez placed 23rd in 25:39.7, again breaking the record for more five seconds.
“I pushed myself for the fastest times,” Hernandez said. “I just want to keep going and improve. I’ve worked hard over the summer and it’s paying off. I’m just focusing on my own time and trying to be the best I can be for those around me. “
Hernandez is also not shy about giving credit to his teammates despite all the individual successes. The Lions have placed 10th or better in three of their four opening events this season. That’s an improved pace from last year’s three top-10 finishes in all seven meetings last season.
A host of homegrown talent played their part in the season. Lawson Douglas (Rogers Heritage), Jordan Foster (Caddo Hills), Joaquin Alva (Fayetteville), Cade Weatherton, Corey Maxwell, Oskar Minick (Rogers Heritage) and Eko Tuel (Rogers Heritage) all played key roles in the arrivals.
“It’s been a fun season for me individually, but I’ve enjoyed the success of the team as well,” Hernandez said. “The close bond we have really helps us keep running fast. It’s a great group of guys. Hotel hangouts are always fun.”
Hernandez set the tone for UAFS all season, and his teammates followed. The Lions improved their school record by 8k in three consecutive events at the Southern Stampede (2:17:29), Chile Pepper (2:15:41) and Old Glory Gallup (2:14:14).
“We’re a different team than we were last year,” UAFS cross country coach Mason Rhodes said. “We’re a different team than we’ve ever been. If we continue the work they’ve done, we’re going to shock some people. We might not fight for one or two at events, but we are going to be competitive.”
The team’s success is not without its challenges. The UAFS does not have a year-round athletics program to compete in the spring for conference or regional achievements like most of its competitors do.
Rhodes, coaching his fifth season at UAFS, hopes to add that in the future. But the Lions want to make the most of their season which includes four to five meetings a year with post-season events. The recent evolution of academic successes and records has been a group effort over the past few years to change the culture and find the identity of the program.
“It was a very interesting road,” Rhodes said. “We’ve brought a lot of great kids into this program over the past 4.5 years. I’m very happy with our group now. I have a lot of kids who love to run and love sports. But they strive also to be special in competitions. We talked a lot about whether we wanted to be a racing club or to be a culture of excellence with the success of the team. They have done the job this summer to a level that I don’t ‘ve never seen before. They were ready to work and came to work. We have fun and push ourselves to a higher capacity.
Hernandez’s success comes as no surprise to anyone on the program, however. In his first run as a rookie with the program in 2020, he led the team with an 8k time of 27:32.3. He hasn’t looked back since that encounter.
His times have improved remarkably since then, but he is still leading the way for the Lions. In his first 14 races for UAFS, he was the team’s fastest in 13 competitions.
“It’s been a long time since that first race,” Hernandez said. “There have been a lot of ups and downs since then. But I’m very proud of this program and the direction we’re taking.”
The transformation Hernandez has made this year, improving his 8K time by more than two minutes from 2021, came as no surprise to his current coach despite the down year for the team a season ago. Rhodes was well aware of the work Hernandez did during the summer to prepare for a special campaign.
“Coming out last year after the covid season, we were in for a funk,” Rhodes said. “We just couldn’t get started. The team itself was in a weird situation. We had to make some changes. We really sat down and gave Carlos a lot of control and authority to figure out how we wanted to. us training. He went to work this summer and was extremely consistent and driven. He showed up in the best shape I’ve ever seen an athlete.”
Asked about his leadership role, Hernandez dismisses the idea that he thinks about being a leader at all. It’s just in his humble and gentle nature. But there’s no doubt in the minds of his coach and teammates: Hernandez is the heart and soul of the program.
“He really tied everyone together and took on a huge leadership role,” Rhodes said. “He’s a really good glue for both teams. He wants to lead by example and instill a good work ethic to help achieve the goals. We train and do everything together on both sides. We train a little differently some But we’re one big family We’re all across the country hanging out together.
“It’s rare to get that in sports with a shared experience. Whoever doesn’t run, the other team cheers him on to the finish line. Carlos wants UA-Fort Smith to be something special even after he left. couldn’t make me more excited. It helps us climb that ladder.
Rhodes knows firsthand what it takes to set records in UAFS. The former Russellville Lion runner saw the initial record that Hernandez broke from a former teammate. But what Rhodes believes has allowed Hernandez to be as good as he has been this season is a shift in mindset.
“His mental drive, courage and tenacity are on another level,” Rhodes said. “I’ve never seen it before, even with teammates I had. The school record he broke was from my teammate Jesus Galindo in 2015. I’ve seen what it takes as a runner and as a as a coach. He reminds me a lot of Jesus with running form and pushing the limits. It’s not hard to find those qualities in a runner, but it’s hard to find one who wants to use it all time.”
With the regular season now over, the Lions focus on making history at the Lone Star Conference Championship game on Nov. 5 in Wichita Falls, Texas. The program has never had an all-conference finisher. They have a chance to do so with Hernandez leading the men’s team and freshmen Rachel and Hailey Malik on the women’s side.
The Lions have finished 13th as a team in 2020 and 2021 in previous conference championships. Hernandez ranked 52nd in his freshman season, then improved to 44th in his sophomore year. He doesn’t know what he and the Lions are aiming for this year, but he’s excited to see what they can do on a big stage with the upgrades.
“We definitely want to rank a little higher this year,” Hernandez said. “I believe we can make progress there as a team. I don’t think I have a specific target at the moment. I’ve improved so much since last year, so I don’t think I have any limits I would really like to push to be towards the top spots. We want to do that as a team.”