Inspired by her high school volleyball coach, Sylvia Cardenas had her career choice mapped out by the time she graduated from Harlandale in 1979.
"I wanted to be a coach and I just ran with it," Cardenas said Tuesday. "Athletics were a big part of my life when I was growing up, and I thought that coaching would be a great way to help kids prepare for the future and teach them how to work to be successful in life."
A three-sport athlete at Harlandale, Cardenas played volleyball at St. Mary's for four years before earning her degree in 1983. She started her coaching career at Terrell Wells Middle School that August, and moved to Harlandale to coach the girls basketball team in 1984.
Cardenas has been at Harlandale since then, coaching basketball for five seasons before taking over the volleyball program in 1989. Now 51, Cardenas is in her 24th season as the Lady Indians' volleyball coach and has become synonymous with the south-side San Antonio school.
Indeed, Cardenas has been volleyball coach at Harlandale for so long that it's difficult to imagine anyone else coaching the Lady Indians.
She recorded her 500th career victory earlier this season and is now 511-278 since succeeding Ninfa Garcia. Harlandale has made the playoffs 18 times during Cardenas' watch, and has advanced to the postseason in each of the past 12 seasons.
But Cardenas' sphere of influence extends beyond the volleyball court and the Harlandale community.
Cardenas: Sports help girls build confidence, self-esteem
Cardenas is also girls athletic coordinator at Harlandale, a testament to her leadership and advocacy for all girls sports, and she is one of the most respected members of the Harlandale faculty.
"I believe that sports can be a big key to help girls with their confidence and self-esteem, and help them develop good work habits," Cardenas said. "They learn how to work with others and how to compete. This helps them when they're competing for good grades, and later on in life when they're out in the world competing for a job.
"I just feel that our girls need to be involved and belong to something positive. They need to stay active and be in a situation where they receive positive reinforcement. Sports helps them stay focused on school."
Rudy De Los Santos, athletic director of the Harlandale Independent School District, knew Cardenas as a colleague when he coached football at Harlandale.
"She's really entrenched in the community," De Los Santos said. "Other than going to St. Mary's, she never has really left Harlandale. She's been very consistent through the years. She's got deep, deep roots at Harlandale and in our school district."
Cardenas also has touched the lives of volleyball players outside the Harlandale district through a 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.
Cardenas honored for work with summer league
Can You Dig It is open to middle school and high school players, with the latter paying a $50 fee and the former paying $40.
"It's a way to get girls who can't afford to play club ball in the gym and touching the volleyball before the season starts," Cardenas said. "Volleyball starts so early now. You start practicing on Monday, have a scrimmage on Friday and start playing games the next week. If your girls are not in the gym in the summer, you're going to have a hard time."
Cardenas' league has been so successful that she was honored by the Billie Jean King International Women's Sports Center in New York in June 2008.
The King Center, which has a wing in the Sports Museum of America, was created by the Women's Sports Foundation and is the only museum exhibit in the world dedicated exclusively to women's sports. It is also the home of the International Women's Sports Hall of Fame.
Cardenas was recognized in an exhibit at the King Center for a year, and was the only Hispanic honored. Cardenas made the trip to New York with her husband, Richard, a former basketball coach who is now an assistant principal at Zamora Middle School in the South San Antonio ISD.
"I got to meet Billie Jean King," Cardenas said. "Looking at that exhibit gave me a great feeling of accomplishment, not only for me, but for the Harlandale community. I was overwhelmed."
One of Cardenas' best friends is McCollum volleyball coach Roseann Martinez, a 1989 Harlandale graduate who played basketball for Cardenas and later was on her volleyball coaching staff for four years.
"I always call Sylvia for advice," Martinez said. "Our teams are rivals but we're best friends. She's a mentor, but she's more like a sister to me. She's very level-headed. She always thinks things through really well, which is one of the reasons why she's been so successful at Harlandale.
"She has a lot of knowledge when it comes to the game. But it's not only about the game, it's other things, like family decisions, buying a house, a car."
Cardenas' late father was her No. 1 fan
The second of three children born to David and Dominga Martinez, Cardenas competed in volleyball, basketball and track at Harlandale. Her volleyball coach, Grace Deverick, had a profound impact on her life and career.
"I wanted to help kids the way she did," Cardenas said. "She was a motivator. We keep in touch and I still bounce things off of her."
While Deverick influenced Cardenas at school, her father was her No. 1 fan on and off the court. David Martinez died at age 74 in July 24.
"Last season was very hard on me because my dad wasn't there," Cardenas said. "He always used to sit on the opposite of the gym so he could look at me. He went to all of my games when I played and all of my games when I coached."
Cardenas has been at it for so long that she's already started coaching the daughters of some of her former players. One of them is Sierra Sandoval, a junior on this year's team. Sandoval's mother, Natalie Longoria Reyes, played for Cardenas in the early 1990s.
"I think she's doing a great job with the program," said Reyes, a 1994 Harlandale graduate. "Just knowing that we're all part of that and see our kids continue, I think it's awesome. It's like family."
Sandoval said Cardenas provides mother-like guidance for her players.
"She's tough on us, but we know she cares about us," Sandoval said. "She's a good role model because she tells us that she's always there for us if we need her. On the other hand, she's also a good coach. She's strict. She wants you to do well and have good grades. She's like a good teacher and our team is like a family."
Cardenas' passion for job shines through
Reyes, 36, praised Cardenas for the work she has done with her summer league.
"It provides the foundation that they need to succeed in volleyball," Reyes said. "For somebody like Coach Cardenas to have that program around for so many years is good for the lower-income families. It keeps the girls busy during the summer."
Reyes said she still thinks of some of the things Cardenas used to say when she coached her.
"She would tell us to always fight for the things you believe in," Reyes said. "Whatever it is, go for your goals. That's what Coach Cardenas is all about."
Cardenas can't imagine doing anything else but coaching for a living.
"I just love what I do," she said. "I feel it's not a job. I still wake up every morning excited to help the girls. I feel very fortunate to have the opportunity to do what I do. It's still exciting to me."
That unbridled passion defines Cardenas' life and career.