When Carolyn Hernandez first arrived in Nogales in 1979, she had a job waiting for her as the new freshman P.E. teacher and girls’ basketball coach at Nogales High School.
Four decades down the road, she’s now known by most of the town as “Shortcake,” a nickname that stuck with her after one of her basketball players came up with it during her first year as coach.
“My hair used to be super red, and so she brought me this little Strawberry Shortcake doll and she said, ‘I’m going to call you Shortcake,’” Hernandez recounted with a warm chuckle, adding that she still has the doll after all those years.
She said she never imagined when she first arrived that she would spend the next 40 years taking charge of different coaching roles at NHS, ultimately bringing back a national title for one sport.
Throughout her tenure at the school, “Shortcake” has coached basketball, volleyball, softball, track and field, and finally cheerleading, which has been her one constant sport since she took over the program in 1984.
“They asked if I wanted to do it and it had always been an interest of mine because I was a cheerleader in high school,” she said. “But I just didn’t know where this whole thing was going to lead.”
As it turned out, the opportunity led to NHS winning 19 state championships, 12 state runners-up, two national runners-up and this year’s national championship under her direction,
“I couldn’t believe it. The kids were really working hard for that and I’m just there to organize them, make sure that they practice,” Hernandez said, giving all the credit to the team. “They’re the ones who put their body through it every day.”
This national title comes as the cherry on top of Hernandez’s career, as she prepares to retire at the end of this school year.
Looking back on her time as a coach and P.E. teacher, she said that there’s one particular memory that stands out more than others.
“In 1998 was the first year that we ever won anything in the state. We got third place and we thought it was the biggest celebration ever,” she said, adding that everything went uphill in the years after that.
Although she can now look back and count the titles she has guided the cheerleading team to, Hernandez added that balancing her work and personal life was the biggest challenge of all.
“Probably the most challenging is when (my youngest son) was born. That’s the first year I took over cheerleading, so I had a 2-year-old and a baby and I was taking them everywhere,” she said, adding that fortunately, she had a lot of help from her parents, husband and parents-in-law.
“But (my sons) loved it, they loved being at the gym so it was good,” she said.
Her longtime dedication also resulted in befriending some of her former cheerleaders, whose daughters she has also coached.
Hernandez's time at NHS also taught her a few lessons of her own, she said, such as how to be a good person and to be fair to all kids.
“The relationships with the kids – being around them keeps you young, so that’s probably what I’ll miss the most,” Hernandez said in between tears, referring both to the athletes and P.E. students. “But it’s time for me to move on.”
Now, she hopes that she has made a lasting impression on all her students and athletes by instilling some important values in them, she said.
“I really hope that they learn from me the importance of always being on time, and once you start something, never quit,” she said.
Only a few months away from her official retirement, she looks forward to being a grandmother, she said, explaining that her tight work schedule has kept her from visiting some of her grandchildren back in her home state of Kansas.
She and her husband plan to move to Kansas for six months out of the year, she said, but Nogales will still be Shortcake’s home for the other six.