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Staff photo by Troy Stolt / Chattanooga Red Wolves forward Mark Hernandez, left, makes a move on a Fort Lauderdale CF defender during a USL League One match on May 22 at CHI Memorial Stadium in East Ridge.

It's almost as if Marky Hernandez moved to Chattanooga and had to grow up.

Gone are the days when the young soccer player from the Los Angeles area could kick back and enjoy time playing video games and watching television. Life has hit him in a lot of ways both personally and professionally: He will soon be a father, and the 24-year-old forward has been locked in while trying to help the Chattanooga Red Wolves contend for the USL League One title in their third season.

He has given up his Playstation 4, although that was admittedly done with hopes of potentially getting a PS5 and playing the newest Sony game system once the baby arrives in the next month or so. But he hasn't had nearly as much time to watch "The Good Doctor," which was once his favorite show.

"When I was in California, I got into working with autistic kids, and that's another thing that drew me to that show," Hernandez said after Wednesday's 2-1 home win over Tormenta FC. "... (The main character) has autism. He's very smart, but he's against the odds (because of his autism) ... so he fits himself into being a doctor or a surgeon."

It's a cause Hernandez hasn't had a chance to invest time in while in Chattanooga, but he was very devoted to it while in California, where he played college and club soccer — and a decade ago was on a national championship youth team led by current Red Wolves head coach Jimmy Obleda. Hernandez worked as a behavioral technician in an applied behavioral analysis program in California, helping teach autistic children normal activities so that "people wouldn't look at them like, 'Why is he acting like that?'"

Hernandez is in his second season in Chattanooga, having signed in January 2020 after playing for USL Championship club Reno 1868 in Nevada in 2019. He has appeared in 10 matches this year for the Red Wolves (6-1-4), who visit North Texas SC (4-5-2) at 9 p.m. Eastern on Saturday. It's a big match for Chattanooga, which with Wednesday's win moved into a three-way tie for first place in points in the USL League One standings.

Hernandez spent some time coming off the bench as he worked his way back from a preseason injury and still occupies a role akin to a 12th man, having averaged 34.1 minutes per game this season. Seeing him start to warm up on the sideline before checking into a match is reason for Red Wolves fans to get excited, because once he's in the game, he often promptly pleases them with what he does on the field.

It was his run down the goal line and perfectly placed cross to Rafael Mentzingen in the 85th minute that led to the go-ahead goal in Wednesday's match, and Obleda has incrementally worked Hernandez back into more time as his health has improved. He is fourth on the team with two goals and third with two assists in 2021; last season he led the Red Wolves in assists with four and was second with four goals.

"He's such a different type of player," Obleda said. "Every player on the team has a role, and we talked to them about their roles, and Marky, he's just magic. He comes in and changes the game against tired defenders and goes at players and stuff. So you have that ace in your back pocket that when you have to pull it out, you pull it out."

Making the playoffs this season is especially important to not only Hernandez but all of the Red Wolves.

There ultimately wasn't a USL League One postseason last year when the lone playoff match, the championship final, was canceled due to COVID-19. Even if the Red Wolves had qualified for that modified and condensed postseason, the coronavirus running rampant through the team would have left them out.

Last fall's frustrations have only provided more incentive to succeed this summer and be one of the six moving on to the playoffs in November.

"We're at the same place, which is don't give up," Hernandez said. "That's our motto. We know we're going to be in, and we're going to be champions."

Contact Gene Henley at ghenley@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @genehenley3.

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