When Cadet Maddy Cardenas, ’23, was 5 years old, just big enough to serve a sand-encrusted ball, she began playing volleyball almost daily with her father in Redondo Beach, California, a small coastal city in the South Bay region of Los Angeles.
With the Pacific breeze kindling her passion for the sport, Cardenas has played on organized volleyball teams since middle school. As a high school senior, she learned of The Citadel and decided to test her game on the East Coast.
Cardenas didn’t know anyone at The Citadel but was drawn to the military environment. “The Citadel looked like somewhere that I would just fit in really well,” Cardenas said. “I was surprised at how quickly I learned the culture, mannerisms and how to handle my day-to-day life. I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in such a short period of time.”
Juggling the demands of being a student- athlete with cadet obligations is a sporting event in itself, but Cardenas is more than up for the challenge. “My time management has gotten much better over the last couple of years,” she said. “You need to prioritize things like finding time to make sure your uniform looks good but also making sure that you’re spending enough time in the gym.”
When Cardenas isn’t playing volleyball, she is throwing javelin, shot put and discus for the track and field team. In March, she won fourth place in javelin with a toss of almost 88 feet at the Savannah State Relays. At the same time, she is honing her leadership skills in the Corps as the Alpha Company drillmaster and a recruiting officer for First Battalion. “I am constantly reminded of the reasons that I came here,” she said. “I am the oldest of 16 grandchildren, and I know that I have a bunch of younger girls looking up to me, girls who want to play volleyball and do cool things. This is something bigger than me.”
“I don’t think I’ve ever learned so much in such a short period of time.”
Whether Cardenas is sporting a team jersey or the cadet uniform of the day, she is proof that a Citadel education runs deep. “People see that I’m a physics major and assume that I’m smart or see that I play two Division I sports and assume that I’m athletic, but my personality is something not a lot of people see,” she said. “I care a lot about my relationships with family and friends.”
Last season, Cardenas competed in 20 volleyball matches, made 24 digs and had 83 kills. Eleven of her kills—a season high—were made during the conference opener. “There are many experiences that have given me reason to stay busy and work hard to be more than I ever thought I could be,” she said.
Last November, Cardenas’s team won The Citadel’s first Southern Conference championship title in women’s team sports. Having found success on the East Coast, Cardenas carried her momentum to the Dalmatian Coast. In July, she competed with volleyball players from around the world in Croatia. The only competitor from a senior military college, Cardenas stood out for her leadership skills. “I paid attention to what the other team was doing so I could get my teammates as much information as possible. I didn’t start out as team captain, but my coaches made me captain by the end of the trip.”
Her teammates responded to her leadership, too. “It was unreal to spend such a short amount of time with people and become so close with them. There were two girls I had never met from North Carolina. We ended up hitting it off,” said Cardenas, who plans to visit her new friends. While she made connections, she also learned more about herself. “I definitely had some experiences that enhanced my perspective on life. I know I am becoming the person I want to be because I am attracting the friends I want in my life.”
During their two-week tour in Croatia, the athletes also scored time for sightseeing. “We went cliff jumping in Pula,” Cardenas said. “Afterward, we went cave swimming. With rocks surrounding us, we could look up and see the sky through a hole. The views were straight out of a movie.”
Back on campus for preseason volleyball training, Cardenas brought a new appreciation for the basics and warm-ups. “International professional teams,” she said, “are lifting differently, focusing more on fundamentals and techniques, less on power and speed. Some of the rules— and even the balls themselves— are different for international volleyball.”
With graduation around the corner, Cardenas plans to take advantage of the extra year of eligibility the National Collegiate Athletic Association granted Division I athletes in response to the pandemic.
She’ll continue playing volleyball at The Citadel while working on a master’s degree. After that, she intends to play volleyball professionally overseas and anywhere else the winds may take her.