SAN ANTONIO - Out of coaching since health problems pushed her into retirement last fall, former Harlandale volleyball coach Sylvia Cardenas was back in her element earlier this week.
Invited to conduct a three-day volleyball camp at Southwest High School by first-year Dragons coach Valerie Vieyra, Cardenas reveled in teaching the basics of the game that’s been her passion since she was a standout at Harlandale in the late 1970s.
“She still loves the game,” Vieyra, an assistant to McCollum volleyball coach Rose Ann Martinez the past two years, said. “She still wants to be part of volleyball, even if it’s not as a high school coach.”
To hear Cardenas tell it, she relished every second of being back in the gym.
Aside from feeling a little sore after the first day, Cardenas worked the camp with the same hands-on zeal that defined her 28-year career at Harlandale.
At her core, Cardenas will always be a coach.
“My husband said, ‘I thought you were retired,’” Cardenas said, chuckling. “But it’s so hard not to be around volleyball. I miss it. I’m like in heaven now. I can’t sleep at night. I’m thinking about what drills I’m going to run.
“I was nervous on the night before the first day. It was like I had a game, and it’s only a camp. But I have a passion for this, and when you have a passion for something, that’s how it is."
Cardenas’ retirement marked the end of an era at Harlandale High School, where she was a member of the coaching staff and faculty for 33 years. Cardenas, 56, was the Indians’ head girls basketball coach for five seasons before succeeding Ninfa Garcia as volleyball coach in 1989.
Harlandale went 608-331 and missed the playoffs only three times in Cardenas’ 28 seasons. The Indians made the postseason 14 years in a row before the streak ended in 2014.
But more than the victories and playoff appearances, Cardenas carved out a legacy as an exemplary mentor who influenced scores of young lives before she stepped down.
“It was amazing to play for her,” Esmi Molina, a senior on last year’s Harlandale team, said. “It was a great experience. I loved every second of it. I saw her as a mother to me. We all saw her as a mom. She treated us like we were her babies. She did anything for us.”
Cardenas’ life took a downturn 18 months ago when she was diagnosed with dermatomyositis, an inflammatory disease that causes muscle weakness and skin rashes.
“I went about a year and nobody knew what it was,” Cardenas said. “I felt muscle weakness. It was hard for me to get off the sofa. They gave me medication, steroids, and that helped me make it through the day. But the steroids eventually messed up my cartilage between my hips. I had no cartilage, so it was bone on bone. It was painful.”
Unable to walk without limping and being in pain, Cardenas used crutches until she had hip surgery in mid-February. She coached on crutches throughout her final season last year, and had to sit during matches.
“It was very hard to coach that way,” Cardenas said. “I used to stand up for all five games (of a match).”
Molina said that the dedication and grit Cardenas demonstrated as she endured her pain inspired the team.
“It was very heartbreaking to see her struggling, but she still put a smile on her face and worked hard with us,” Molina said. “We saw nothing different. We knew Coach was going to be there for us. It just pushed us to go even harder. We wanted to do it for Coach. Everything we did was for her.”
Cardenas’ last team finished 25-12 and made the playoffs, losing to Corpus Christi Calallen in the first round.
Cardenas returned to work 5½ weeks after her hip surgery, feeling “much better,” and was able to complete the school year without further problems.
“I was walking well and I wasn’t in pain anymore,” Cardenas said. “In April, people were saying, ‘Don’t retire, don’t retire.’ But stress is not good for this illness. My husband told me it would come back with the stress of coaching and the long hours. That’s why I decided to retire.
“It was very hard, but I knew it wouldn’t have been fair to the kids to keep coaching because I couldn’t give them 100 percent. If I can’t give my kids 100 percent, I’d rather somebody else do it.”
Anna Castro, Cardenas’ assistant coach the past 16 seasons, was promoted to head coach in early June.
This summer, Cardenas said, hasn’t been much different from past summers. But she acknowledged that is likely to change in the next few days when high school teams start practicing. The first day of preseason workouts for UIL and TAPPS schools is Tuesday, and matches begin next week.
“I know I’m going to miss coaching a lot, but it hasn’t really hit me yet,” Cardenas said. “It still feels like summer to me. My husband (Richard) is an educator and one of my sons (Jake) is an educator now, too, and they’ve been off. Once everybody goes back to work, I’m going to be like, ‘Oh, my God, I’m supposed to be somewhere.’”
Besides going through withdrawal from coaching, Cardenas is sure to miss Harlandale High School, where she was a student for four years before graduating in 1979. All told, she has spent 37 of the past 42 school years as a student or coach at Harlandale.
Cardenas played volleyball at St. Mary’s for four years before earning her degree in 1983, and began her career at Terrell Wells Middle School in the Harlandale ISD that August.
Dominique Delgado, a 2015 Harlandale graduate, played for Cardenas and is now a junior volleyball player at Bacone College in Muskogee, Okla. Delgado, who has three older sisters who played for Cardenas, started going to volleyball matches when she was still in diapers.
“I always wanted to play for her,” Delgado said. “Ever since I was little, I would tell her, ‘Just wait (to retire) until after I graduate.’ Then she’d say. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do.’ It was an honor to play for Coach Cardenas.
“Not a lot of girls can get that kind of coaching experience. There are great coaches all over, but Coach Cardenas was Harlandale. You don’t think of Harlandale volleyball without thinking of Coach Cardenas. Harlandale volleyball has been her passion.”
Not surprisingly, Cardenas plans to stay involved in the San Antonio volleyball community. One of her retirement goals is to continue helping with the summer league she helped establish in 1992.
Called Can You Dig It?, the league is an affordable alternative to the more expensive club teams that have changed the landscape of interscholastic volleyball in Texas. The league is open to middle school and high school players.
“I’m going to be a club coach with the little ones, trying to get them going,” Cardenas said.
Can You Dig It? has been so successful that Cardenas was honored by the Billie Jean King International Women’s Sports Center in New York in 2008.
Cardenas also has considered taking up officiating volleyball matches to help fill the void she’s sure to feel during the high school season.
“My husband told me I should do it because he thinks I’m going to be so bored,” Cardenas said. “At least I’ll be doing something with volleyball.”
While it seems strange to refer to Cardenas as Harlandale’s former volleyball coach, it’s equally unthinkable that she would, or could, walk away from the sport that’s been so central to her life.
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