Cougars girls soccer thinks outside the box.
That was Coach Graham Warne's message to his Cardinal Mooney girls soccer team in the middle of its game against The Out-of-Door Academy on Dec. 2. Previously, the Cougars were content to take long shots at the goal. Honestly, that was my strategy when I played soccer. (I was also 6, so what did I know.) It seemed to be somewhat effective — the Cougars were up 1-0 at the time — but Warne wanted more.
"We have a way we like to try to play, and that's [maintaining] possession," Warne said. "So when we get to taking shots from 30 yards out, I mean, that's not being smart. The second half, we connected on passes instead of just playing long balls for someone to chase."
They got the message in the second half. The Cougars went on to win 5-0, with goals coming from all over the place, in terms of positioning. Some were off crosses from sophomore Jenna Santiago, who slithered past ODA defenders all night. Some were from up-close booms in the box. One longer goal, from sophomore defender Hallie Monserez, was off a corner kick, then off an ODA defender for a ricochet goal. Monserez simply laughed afterwards. I would have, too. It was fun soccer to watch.
(Not that I would ever accuse soccer of being boring to watch. I'm an objective journalist, after all.)
The team's ability to change on the fly stuck with me. That is usually reserved for veteran teams — in terms of experience, not age — but the Cougars have five players who have never previously played the sport. That leaves Warne with 11 players, just enough to field a full squad, who have played competitively before. Those 11 tend to play most if not all of the game.
"I am limited when it comes to substitutions," Warne said. "But they [the first-time players] are getting better. Unfortunately, high school soccer is such a short season that it doesn't give them a lot of time [to learn]."
It is an interesting strategic crunch for Warne, who said he is most worried about what he will do if someone gets injured. A lack of depth can be killer for contending teams, which Mooney is: The Cougars are off to a 4-0-1 start, though Warne knows tougher challenges lay ahead.
See, the Cougars' aspirations of creativity are not contained to the field. In previous years, Mooney would play schools of its ilk, crush them, then get trounced when larger, stronger programs showed up in the playoffs. With the Florida High School Athletic Association eliminating the need to play district games, outside of district tournaments, Mooney was free to schedule the toughest teams they could, and they did: Upcoming matchups include Riverview High, Sarasota High and the always-strong Lakewood Ranch High.
As someone who loves a challenge himself, I admire when programs win by doing things different, like the service academies in college football that run the triple-option offense, or the Tampa Bay Rays inventing the concept of the "opening pitcher," the opposite of a closing pitcher, whose job is to hold down the fort for an inning or two to start the game.
Maybe Mooney's record suffers because of the schedule, but the players will get better and the team will be prepared to make a deep playoff run. It is yet another way that the Cougars are emphasizing ingenuity, along with their schemes. And as the team gels, who knows how many new ways they will find to score?
I can't wait to find out.