PROVO — Big-hitting freshman Gabi Garcia Fernandez came to BYU under extraordinary circumstances, but not as extraordinary as how he first came to the sport of volleyball. Both circumstances have the 6-foot-7 Puerto Rico native swinging strong for the BYU men's volleyball team this season, helping the Cougars once again contend with the nation's best.
Fernandez began his volleyball journey by literally walking into a gym and starting from scratch at the age of 13. Growing up in San Juan, Puerto Rico, he'd already become infatuated with baseball and had made strides in the sport, playing for one of the many club teams around the island U.S. territory.
But transportation problems played a role in switching Fernandez's focus from baseball to volleyball.
"I had family issues with some cars at the time and couldn't get a ride to practices with my club team," Fernandez said. "It was way too far to walk, but there was a volleyball team practicing at a place I could walk to, so I just walked in one day and asked, 'What can you do with me?'"
The answer was eventually "quite a bit" — but it didn't come easy. The then 13-year-old faced a steep learning curve, given his almost complete inexperience playing the sport. But given his superior athleticism, Fernandez began rising up the ranks.
His first coach quickly recognized his potential, and worked him onto a higher-level club team.
"It was all really high level since I was about 15," Fernandez said. "I've always played against older and more experienced guys, but I got used to it and better for it. I'm so thankful that first coach saw something in me that I didn't."
Fernandez's parents, Jose Garcia and Rebecca Fernandez, also played a big role in his development, making certain to support him in volleyball, which had become his main pursuit.
"They have always been great at encouraging me to play a lot of sports, which really helped when learning how to play volleyball," Fernandez said.
Fernandez quickly became part of the Puerto Rican Youth National team and later part of the Junior National team, where he was named an All-American three times.
As could be imagined, collegiate programs began taking a lot of interest in the budding Puerto Rican star, recruiting him relatively early. Fernandez finally rested on Cal Baptist, making the decision to join the program in December 2016. He was excited for the opportunity to gain an education and the experience of playing college volleyball.
The hope of playing for Cal Baptist ended abruptly, however, with Fernandez receiving an alarming phone call about half a year after committing.
"They informed me that they ended their volleyball program, so yeah, it was really shocking," Fernandez said. "I had no idea where I could go. I had no idea if I'd get another opportunity. It was really hard to hear."
Fernandez's uncertainty was short-lived, however, as BYU contacted him the very day Cal Baptist delivered the bad news.
"They called me, and then we started exchanging emails, and we started the recruiting process over again, a bit, with my mom really helping me get through it and then decide," Fernandez said. "I always knew about BYU because of the great Puerto Rican players that went there, so I then decided BYU was where I needed to go and it's been the best decision."
Former Puerto Rican players that have starred for BYU include Ossie Antonetti, Joaquin Acosta and Ivan Perez, among others. Some of them, particularly Antonetti, reached out to Fernandez and encouraged him to play for BYU.
With just over a month gone in the 2018 season, BYU has benefited from Fernandez's play. Named an immediate starter from the first match, the freshman leads the team in kills (175) and is tied for second in blocks with 39.
"He's right there with the rest of the great freshmen we've had here," said BYU coach Shawn Olmstead. "He's confident, and I like that a lot about him. He has an arm that rivals that of any freshmen who have come (to BYU) ... He's done a really good job with the load."2 comments on this story
Fernandez believes he's benefited at least as much from BYU, as the program has by his play.
"It's just super-awesome being here. Everyone is so nice and helpful in everything. That's what I love most — the helping part. Whether it be school, volleyball or whatever, people are so willing to help. It's been amazing," Fernandez said.
"I miss the warmth of Puerto Rico, and I do still miss playing baseball, but being here — things worked out for the best and I definitely believe God had his hand in all of it."