SARASOTA — The Cardinal Mooney High football team knew what it was up against — a feat that hadn’t been accomplished in seven years.
The last time it happened, the players on the Cougars varsity roster were still in elementary school.
But it hadn’t been for a lack of trying.
Over the past couple of years, Cardinal Mooney had been hampered by injuries and missed opportunities.
Well before the season began, the Cougars gathered to make sure everyone clearly understood: Their goal was to win the district title.
With only two district games on its schedule, Cardinal Mooney set out to take each game as it came.
Cardinal Mooney opened its district season with a 62-0 victory over rival ODA Oct. 18. With the win, the Cougars secured a berth in the postseason for the first time since 2008.
But the Cougars weren’t done yet. There was still one district game to go. One game left to determine whether the Cougars would play their first playoff game at home or if they would be on the road as the district runner-up.
On Nov. 1, the Cougars traveled to Fort Myers for their final district game of the season against Bishop Verot. The winner would clinch the Class 3A-District 10 title.
Trailing 3-0, Cardinal Mooney scored 21 unanswered points to take a 21-3 lead into the fourth quarter. Bishop Verot opened the fourth quarter with a double pass for a touchdown to pull within 21-10. At that point, it was still anyone’s game.
It wasn’t until Cardinal Mooney responded with a pair of touchdowns later in the fourth quarter and the final minute wound down, that the Cougars could finally celebrate their accomplishment — a 35-10 victory and a district championship.
“It’s been our goal since day one,” junior left guard Kevin Barker says. “All spring this is what we looked forward to, so it feels good to get one big accomplishment down. We still have a lot to look forward to, but this is definitely the start of something.”
“It obviously feels good, but it’s more important for the kids,” says coach Josh Smithers, who won his first district title since taking over in 2007. “It’s not just for the guys in 2013, but for the guys who were here the last couple of years and got us closer to getting over the hump. These kids deserve it. They work hard, but it makes you feel bad for those other guys.”
Running back Demardre Patterson carried the ball 36 times for 257 yards and three touchdowns.
Quarterback Reese Vita and running back Vince Sellers each added a rushing touchdown. Alex Sobczak had a pair of interceptions, and Sellers had an interception — all three of which resulted in touchdowns for the Cougars.
“The satisfaction of seeing my family succeed is what drives me,” Barker says.
Cardinal Mooney will close out its regular season at Booker Nov. 8 against a Class 5A Tornadoes team that is preparing to make its own playoff berth for the first time since 2007.
The Cougars are hoping to use the opportunity of going up against one of the area’s premier running backs — Marlon Mack — as a way to prepare for the rushing attack they’ll face in the first round of the playoffs.
“Marlon Mack is, in my opinion, the best running back in the area,” Smithers says. “Everyone knows about Manatee and IMG (Academy) and their offensive lines, but I don’t think Booker gets that respect. He’s scary.”
Cardinal Mooney will begin its playoff run Nov. 15 versus St. Pete Catholic in the Class 3A-Region 3 semifinals. The winner will advance to regional finals to face the winner of the other semifinal between Bishop Verot and Clearwater Central Catholic.
The Cougars beat St. Pete Catholic 14-12 earlier this season on the road, but the players know that anything is possible in the playoffs. A win during the regular season doesn’t automatically mean a win in the postseason. Cardinal Mooney simply plans to focus on the task at hand.
“I think we have a state-worthy team,” Barker says. “On the field, it’s 11 guys versus 11 guys; and our 11 guys are so bonded that I think we can make it to states.”
“They don’t look ahead and they don’t look behind,” Smithers says. “They just keep playing. It’s been a fun year.”
Contact Jen Blanco at [email protected].