Lenny Ignelzi / Associated Press file photo
Saturday, April 1, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Alex Hernandez spent many long days in the gym working to get the Gonzaga basketball team to this moment.
First, as a player and then during a near decade-long career working in player development with the program, the Valley High graduate fondly recalls being part of many noteworthy moments in the Zags’ rise from small-conference power to national power.
Today, the Bulldogs will play in their most significant game, taking on South Carolina at the Final Four in Phoenix. It’s just Hernandez, a former Nevada Player of the Year, won’t be at this game. He stopped working with the team after last season to open a small business.
“I’m not involved, but I still feel like I am involved,” he said. “I got a lot of texts (last week after Gonzaga made the Final Four) from people with the program saying, ‘You are a big part of this.’ It is kind of bittersweet.”
The 6-foot-4 Hernandez helped Valley win the 1998 state championship in his senior season. But because he played center, he needed to spend two years at Casper Community College in Wyoming becoming a more capable player on the wing. That led to a scholarship offer from Gonzaga, who was still in its infancy in becoming a regular NCAA Tournament participant.
During Hernandez’s first season, the Zags won a then school-best 29 games and advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to Michigan State.
“It’s just unbelievable at this time of the year in Spokane (Wash.). It’s such an amazing place when it comes to supporting Gonzaga basketball,” Hernandez said. “The fan base is unbelievable. They are ecstatic with the (Final Four appearance).”
Hernandez moved to Portland after graduation in 2002, but stayed in close contact with the program. Coach Mark Few offered him a job in 2008 in player development.
“We were ranked No. 1 a few years ago and lost to Duke in the tournament,” he said. “They went on to win the national championship.”
Hernandez thinks it’s Gonzaga who could be the last team standing this season. And, he says, this isn’t some biased opinion.
“What they have is depth. They have big guards that we have never had at Gonzaga,” he said. “You need guard depth and you need a post presence. On past teams, we haven’t had that. We aren’t that Cinderella team anymore.”