Cougars volleyball prove its mettle in an epic comeback.
If the Cardinal Mooney High volleyball team wanted to prove it was different than the 2018 squad, it accomplished that goal Aug. 27.
Last season, the Cougars reached the state championship game against Trinity Catholic. Mooney won the first two sets before losing in five. Sports writers have a tendency to overuse the word heartbreaking, but it applied to that match if it applies to any. After graduating three key seniors in Sophia Hebda, Dalton Judge and Kali Plattner, I was curious how the new Cougars would look.
What better way to find out than a match against crosstown rival Riverview High, a state contender in its own right.
Both teams entered the early-season contest undefeated, but early on, the Rams looked more battle-tested. A 25-21 first set win led to a quick 25-16 win in set two. The home Riverview crowd levied chants of “overrated” at the Cougars, who won the only match between the two in 2018.
Then Mooney coach Chad Sutton took his team aside, instead of talking to them on the bench, before the third set.
“I wanted to get them out of the gym, get them out of the environment for a second,” Sutton said. “I let them know that it was OK. They wanted to do certain things tonight, it didn’t work, and that is OK. We haven’t lost yet. We learned in last year’s state championship that it takes three (sets) to win. We have been in that situation before.”
Sutton then reminded them of their abilities, of which there are plenty. Senior captains Sophia Hritz and Anna Klemeyer are a steadying presence. Senior libero Madison Brown is a defensive specialist. Junior Ashley “Skye” Ekes can drop a hammer kill with the best of them, and Sutton raved about newcomers Mary Page, a junior who moved to the area from Maryland, and Jordyn Byrd, a 6-foot-4 freshman.
Something about Sutton’s speech freed the Cougars to play their game. They stormed to a 25-11 win in set three, silencing the crowd, then fended off a Rams resurgence in set four to win it 25-18.
In the winner-take-all fifth set, both teams showcased what makes them special. Each volley drew gasps as players dove for digs, fought off kill attempts and executed set plays. Ultimately, another Ekes mega-kill sealed things: The Cougars took the set 15-11 and erupted in an energy storm familiar to anyone who watched them in 2018. If the magic wasn’t there at the start, it was there by the end.
“Some of our core values are relentlessness, optimism, grinding,” Sutton said. “The biggest one they showed tonight is character. They kept fighting. Fighting to get in rhythm. Fighting to make plays.”
The Cougars have expanded their offensive sets this season, and Sutton makes no bones about why: The championship loss still stings. He and his players have decided they don’t simply want to win state title, though of course they do. They want to be a top-25, maybe even top-10 program in the nation. Having knowledge of multiple attacks will help them against elite competition. There will be growing pains within the learning process, Sutton said. The team will have lows. In the long run, it will help.
Mooney will not wait long for its next test. This weekend, the Cougars are hosting the Circus City Invitational at Robarts Arena. Sutton wants this to become a destination event for the country’s top programs, as there are not many on this side of the country and, being a small school, it is difficult for Mooney to travel to California for them.
The tournament is off to a good start. This year, the invitational will see McGill-Toolen High (the top-ranked team in Alabama), Nation Ford High (the top team in South Carolina), Marist High (the top team in Illinois), Walton High (the top team in Georgia) and Oviedo High (the top team in Florida) compete for bragging rights, among other competitive programs. It is an impressive group, one that should make all teams involved better.
For Sutton, that is a bigger prize than winning the thing. His team needs work, he said. They are young, not in years but in experience. Even if Mooney collects some bruises in the tournament, it will have been worth it.
The Riverview win was step one. Now comes step two.
“We want to be better,” Sutton said. “We want to be more. We are not there yet, by any stretch of the imagination, but we are working towards it. For now, this is a good reference point to look back on, to help build towards the future. This is exciting. That is a tough task they just took on, against a great team. It says a lot about them.”