500. 30. 13. Those may seem like random numbers to the average person but Sylvia Cardenas is not your average person. The Harlandale High School Head Volleyball Coach celebrated her 500th win as she began her 30th season this year, making her only the 13th coach in San Antonio to ever reach this milestone.
“I’m excited. I thought it would never happen,” said Coach Cardenas with a twinkle in her eye and a smile as big as her heart.
The truth is it didn’t happen when she thought it would. Coach Cardenas knew the milestone was approaching but wasn’t sure how to share it with her young varsity team. She opted for making it part of their pre-game ritual.
“Before every game we sit around and talk about our goals. I talked about wanting to be a better motivator for them and then I mentioned winning my 500th game.”
The girls were ecstatic and promised to win it for her but it didn’t happen that night. In fact, it took three more games. Saturday, August 25 was the big day. HHS was up against Burbank at the Cougar Classic in Floresville and they swept them, 25-9 and 25-12, winning the bronze bracket and lifting Coach Cardenas to the 500 mark. She credits her team, staff and family.
“I couldn’t do it without them. I have a great staff. We’re all old school. We believe in the traditions of hard work, dedication and walking onto the court with pride. I’m also lucky. My husband was a coach so he understands the time and commitment it takes. And he cooks - thank God – because I don’t cook.”
Coach Cardenas’ professional and personal lives are so intertwined, you can hardly tell apart the coach from the wife and mother. Both of her sons attended Harlandale High School and played sports there, just like mom. Cardenas graduated in 1979 and went on to play volleyball at St. Mary’s University. Her boys, Aaron and Jake, played football at HHS and Jake is now playing for University of the Incarnate Word.
“Our home was all about athletics: football, volleyball, booster clubs, practice and strategies. Those were our conversations around the dinner table,” she explained about her home life.
On campus she has her other family.
“I feel like I do have girls, daughters. I have 16 of them,” said Coach Cardenas.
After graduating nine seniors last year, this year’s team includes only four. The rest are juniors and two sophomores.
“They’re inexperienced but they work hard.”
Coach Cardenas doesn’t just work with them on their defense, offensive approach and blocking. She’s also their mentor, friend and motherly figure.
“They come to us when they have family problems. We are their second moms and their parents entrust them to us. We try to teach them to be good, young women, good citizens and never forget where they come from.”
Those are all traits Coach Cardenas learned from her parents. Her mother and father were at every single one of her games from the time she started playing sports as a youngster.
“My dad was my #1 fan. When I first became a coach, he’d wait for me at the kitchen table to talk about the game. Then, after I got married, he’d call me late at night as I drove home from the game.”
Sadly, her father passed away last year.
“I miss looking up and seeing him in the stands. Most of all, I miss that phone call.”
Nowadays, Coach Cardenas is receiving phone calls from around the state.
“Everyone has been calling to congratulate me – administrators, parents, community members, other coaches,” explained Coach Cardenas as she hung up the phone from one of the congratulatory calls that interrupted our interview.
She was beaming and when she turned to look at me and continue the Q&A, she just couldn’t help herself to say, “I bleed maroon. Bottom line. I want my girls to feel this way too. I want them to feel like they are the pride of the south side because they are.”
Cardenas has been trying to instill that in every player since she returned to the Harlandale ISD in 1983 as a coach at Terrell Wells Middle School. She first coached several different sports there before making the switch to her first love – volleyball – then moving to the high school level in 1989.
“I was like, ‘finally this is what I’ve been waiting for,’ but then I was like, ‘what was I thinking?’”
That was the year the realignment pitted Harlandale with Northside teams and it was a challenge but Coach Cardenas got through it and slowly started racking up win after win, season after season. It’s something she still plans to do.
“I’m going to keep coaching as long as I can and for as long as I have the passion. You’ve got to have that drive. You’ve got to have that love.”