For someone who didn’t figure to follow her mother, father and sister into coaching, Yamilet Garcia has done pretty well for herself since becoming the first volleyball coach at O’Connor High School in 1998.
Now in her 17th season with the Panthers, Garcia has left an indelible mark at the only school where she’s been a head volleyball coach.
Garcia, called “Yami” by her family and friends, has a 518-163 career record and has guided O’Connor to the Region IV-5A final twice (2001, 2009). The Panthers also have won or shared the championship in their district in each of the past nine seasons, a streak that stands as a testament to the consistency of Garcia’s program.
While Garcia’s success is reflected in her impressive record, her legacy as a coach transcends sports. Besides being an outstanding coach, Garcia is an exemplary mentor who never has forgotten that, first and foremost, she’s an educator.
“You just aren’t coaching volleyball, you’re teaching your players to be better people later on in life,” Garcia said before a workout this week.
O’Connor beat Marshall on Wednesday night to improve to 29-4 overall and 4-0 in District 27-6A. The Panthers play Holmes at 5:30 p.m. Friday at Taylor Field House.
Garcia, 44, grew up in a family of teachers and coaches. Her mother, Ninfa, was volleyball coach at Harlandale High School for nine seasons before retiring in 1989, and her father, Edwin, was a coach in the Edgewood ISD and had a long career as an administrator in the Harlandale ISD.
“I lived in the gym because both of my parents worked,” Garcia said. “I was a big Harlandale fan. The kids took care of me while my mom was coaching.”
Garcia’s only sibling, older sister Denise Cardenas, is the girls soccer coach at Edison High School and also has coached the Golden Bears’ volleyball team. She started her career as a teacher, cheerleader sponsor and dance-team instructor at Harlandale, where Yamilet was a cheerleader and standout volleyball player.
Coached by her mother, Garcia faced the same high expectations in the gym that she did at home every day.
“It was very hard,” Garcia said. “My mother was way harder on me than anybody else. I had to constantly prove why I was a starter. There was always a question. The way I grew up, it made it easy for me. I knew I had to work hard. I knew I had to earn everything.”
Ninfa Garcia chuckled when she recalled Yamilet’s high school days.
“She couldn’t get away from us,” Ninfa Garcia said. “Her father was at Leal (Junior High) when she was going to school there and Denise had her as a cheerleader.”
Garcia may have started her career in the shadow of her mother, but it didn’t take her long to establish her own identity as a coach.
“At the beginning of my career at O’Connor, she would call me and ask, ‘Why is so-and-so playing?'” Yamilet said. “I would listen respectfully, but then I’d tell her, ‘Mom, you’re not in the gym every day. You don’t see what goes on.’
“Now she’s just a fan. She and my father are our biggest fans. They go to all my games and all of my sister’s games. They’re my biggest supporters.”
There was a time when Garcia was determined to take a different career path than her parents and sisters.
“She said she wanted to do something that paid her a lot of money,” Edwin Garcia said. “I don’t know what that was.”
The way Yamilet sees it, she was destined to be a coach.
“When I went to college, I said, ‘I’m not going to coach,'” Garcia said. “It was that little rebel in me. I kept saying I wasn’t going to do it. But it was inside of me to want to coach.”
Garcia played volleyball at Angelo State for four years and earned her degree in December 1991. She was hired as a math teacher at Highlands High School the following spring and finished the 1991-92 school year there. Garcia was girls track coach and an assistant volleyball coach at Burbank High School in 1992-93 before going to Clark.
Garcia’s qualities as a coach reflect her strict upbringing and a philosophy grounded in the value of a strong work ethic.
“I love when kids come back and tell me, ‘I’m so thankful you were hard on us. I’m so thankful you didn’t allow us to do whatever, because now I’m better for it,'” Garcia said. “The biggest thing my parents taught me is that hard work pays off. You also have to be disciplined. My parents were so hard on my sister and me in our personal lives when we were growing up.
“Everything had to be earned, and that has carried over to my coaching. You have to earn it. We never go into a match not respecting an opponent. We know we have to work for every win. We don’t feel like we’re entitled to anything. I think that’s why we’ve been successful. I try really hard to keep the kids grounded.”
Garcia’s demanding workouts usually do the trick. Given the pace and intensity of a typical O’Connor workout, just getting through practice is an accomplishment in itself.
“Yami is a motivator,” Denise said. “Some coaches can do that and others can’t. She knows how to get the most out of her players. I’m so proud of her.”
Players committed to maintaining O’Connor’s winning tradition
To watch Garcia interact with her players during practice is to see a coach who revels in teaching the fundamentals of the game. Garcia drives her team hard and quickly admonishes anybody who slacks off.
“She’s very competitive and wants the best for all of us,” senior middle blocker Alexandra Ecker said. “We work hard every day in practice because she knows how hard it is to get to where we want to be. She stays on us. She knows what we can do, so she expects the best out of all of us. She expects everybody to play hard, even though it’s just practice.”
Senior outside hitter Gillianne Simpkins said the Panthers strive to meet Garcia’s expectations on and the court.
“She always expects perfect effort, like she says, in anything we do,” Simpkins said. “We always try to make sure that we’re putting our best foot forward, making sure that we respect other teams, and work hard on the court. That’s how she brings out the best in the program. We try very hard to maintain that standard.”
The workouts are tough and players must sacrifice to be part of a team, but Simpkins said all the work is worth it.
“Being there with all the other girls builds a very strong bond that you don’t get in other places,” she said. “You want to work for each other.”
In the end, Garcia’s coaching philosophy is rather simple.
“Playing hard, believing and having heart – that’s what I expect from my players,” she said.
That pretty much defines the O’Connor volleyball program.