The Cougars' historic season ended in the regional finals, but they believe this is only the beginning.
The run is over.
After defying the odds all season, the Cardinal Mooney boys lacrosse team (20-2) fell to Jupiter High, 9-5, in the Florida High School Athletic Association regional finals on May 4. The Cougars had the best season in the sport’s young area history.
Senior defenseman Matthew McDonnell said what he’ll remember most about this Cougars team was its closeness. Most players had played together for at least three years, he said. They shared a common goal, and they worked hard, together, to try and achieve it. Even if they fell just short, he said, it was a special ride. The team’s motto this season was “Family,” and McDonnell said the team couldn’t have embodied that motto more.
“I came to Mooney for lacrosse, but I ended up making a great group of friends,” McDonnell said. “It (the program) means everything to me right now.”
Coach Derek Wagner said he’s most proud of his team's 100% buy-in. The Cougars committed to a jittery style of play, and its shifty attackers decimated opposing defenses. Their own defenders and midfielders followed suit.
“They stayed committed from the first day to the last,” Wagner said.
Wagner said he’d give himself a week to decompress before turning his attention to next season, which he believes will be another strong one. All of the Cougars’ starting attackers return, as does goalie Nick Petruccelli, who split time in the regular season but started in the playoffs. They will have to replace McDonnell, plus midfielders Caleb Ward and Eric Martin, among others, but the Cougars are confident in what they have. The juniors are already getting ready for summer workouts, Wagner said.
Next season will also be the last that Cardinal Mooney has to deal with a different kind of size advantage. When the Cougars lost to Jupiter, it was a private school of approximately 500 students losing to a public school of approximately 3,000. Wagner said it's difficult to compete with that disparity in talent pool size, despite hanging with the Indians in the loss. Starting in the 2019-2020 school year, lacrosse will move from one FHSAA class to two, ensuring that programs will be matched with programs of a similar size, at least in the playoffs.
With those changes intact, Wagner said a west coast lacrosse team — be it Cardinal Mooney or someone else — will win a state title within five years. It would be a boon to an area seen as inferior by programs in east and central Florida. A few days after the Cougars’ loss, Wagner said, a parent from an unnamed west coast school told a Mooney parent that teams from this area “are never going to beat east coast teams.”
“If you have that mindset, you’re not going to,” Wagner said. “We beat St. Thomas Aquinas this year, so that’s already proven to be not true.”
For area teams to become perennial state title threats, Wagner believes programs must schedule tougher opponents during the regular season. Even if that leads to more initial losses, programs will never raise themselves to championship levels by beating “cupcake” teams, he said.
Wagner is going to create a schedule that tests his team. When the Cougars take the field next season, it’ll be to prove that this season was no fluke.