The Cougars are 9th in the nation according to MaxPreps and contenders to win not one, but two state titles
A top 10 national ranking has changed the mindset of the Cardinal Mooney High beach volleyball team.
It's not that the Cougars were not taking the sport seriously in the past; they were. But the team's priorities are different now. The Cougars — ranked No. 9 in the country by MaxPreps — used to see beach season as a fun way to stay in shape for the indoor season while doing something competitive. Now, the Cougars have their eyes set on winning a state championship.
Actually, scratch that. Two state championships.
The 2022 season is the first season for beach volleyball sanctioned by the Florida High School Athletic Association, something that Mooney coach Chad Davis helps give the sport some legitimacy in the eyes of casual fans.
The Cougars are participating in the FHSAA beach season. They're also participating in the Sunshine State Athletic Conference season. The SSAC has held a beach volleyball league since 2017 and Mooney has been a participant each season. There are no current plans to change that, even with the addition of the FHSAA season.
The result is a spring season filled with a lot of beach matches — sometimes three a week — plus indoor travel tournaments for many of the girls on the team. It's plenty of work, Mooney junior Jordyn Byrd said, but the team's coaches recognize that it might get tiring and limit practice days as a result. If it ends in a state title, or two, it will be worth the work, Byrd said. The SSAC championship will be held April 29-30 in Tavares while the FHSAA championship will be held in Tallahassee in May.
The lack of practice days has not hurt the Cougars. As of March 23, Cardinal Mooney is undefeated, including a 5-0 road win over Sarasota Christian on March 22. Unlike indoor volleyball, beach volleyball is played in pairs. Each pair plays an opposing pair in a three-set match where 21 points wins a set.
The pair that wins gets one point for their team, so Mooney's 5-0 win over the Blazers indicates that the Cougars won every individual match. The format of beach volleyball forces players to be more well-rounded than they have to be in indoor volleyball, a challenge that the Cougars enjoy. Davis said the team has two pairs — juniors Jordyn Byrd/Sawyer DeYoung and junior Madeline Carson/sophomore Helena Hebda — that are interchangeable as the team's No. 1, but all five pairs have impressed.
"Our No. 1 through No. 5 pairs are extremely balanced," Davis said. "That makes us difficult to play. I have added a new assistant, Rick Fisher, who brings a lot of beach experience and technical experience, which has helped our team a ton in terms of skill level. You can't pick on anyone in these pairs like the way you can on some other teams. We were able to find the right mix to prevent that."
The top-10 MaxPreps ranking has the Cougars excited, though it does come with a small caveat. MaxPreps only counts states from Florida, California and Arizona in its national rankings as those are only states with a state high school association that officially sanctioned the sport, despite its prominence in other coastal states like Texas. It's a reminder that unlike indoor volleyball, where all 50 states are represent in MaxPreps' national rankings, beach volleyball is still a regional sport at this stage of its development. Still, Mooney is indeed an elite program in the up-and-coming sport and postseason success would prove that to anyone who remains unconvinced.
"We feel like we really do have a chance to win it all," Sawyer DeYoung said. "Seeing that ranking gives us more confidence."
Usually the home and road designations of local beach volleyball matches are purely symbolic, as matches are played at public venues like Bee Ridge Park. But in Mooney's match against Sarasota Christian, the designations rang true; The Blazers have beach courts on their campus. Davis said Mooney is exploring options to do the same thing, ideally within the next year. Davis said he believes getting financial support from the Mooney community won't be a problem. The courts would likely cost between $10,000 and $15,000, Davis said, if you include the cost of the sand. High-quality sand is the key to a good court, Davis said. Before any fundraising efforts begin, the school has to decide on a location for the courts. Davis said that process is underway.
"Being able to have a beach complex on campus … I mean, our fans are so great, it would be an environment unlike any other," Davis said. "That's our hope."
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