The Cougars were once a powerhouse, winning back-to-back state titles in 1994 and 1995.
When Cardinal Mooney High announced last school year it was considering restarting its softball program, which last existed in 2013, interested parties raced into action.
Gianna Newsome, now a junior, got a list of potential players written down. Friends recruited friends, and friends of friends. Eventually, there was enough interest to persuade the school to go ahead with plans for the program, even though there was no coach yet.
Lauren Falcione, now a senior, said she kept asking the administration if it was really happening. For Falcione, who had previously played recreation league softball, the chance to put on a Mooney softball uniform seemed unbelievable.
She can believe now: The team, coached by Shawn Donelson, is real, and playing real games.
“We were pumped up for this,” Newsome said. “And I think we have already grown as a team. I think we have exceeded some expectations.”
The Cougars' roster is a mix of travel ball players, rec league players and inexperienced players, a challenge for Donelson, who coached Flanagan High in Pembroke Pines for 13 seasons, to figure out. The team, playing a mix of junior varsity and varsity teams, is 3-2 thus far, including an opening-day 17-3 win against Southeast High’s JV team. But Donelson is less concerned with the team’s record than its progress.
“Building a program is everything,” Donelson said. “This year is about the fundamentals. We are going from the ground up. We want to improve from day one to the final pitch of the season. So far, we have improved every day.”
The team came together quickly. Newsome, who plays first base, said the roster was formed from disparate groups that have now bonded like any other team does. They now consider each other close friends. Emma Plumley, a freshman pitcher, said the team eventually wants to get to the competitive level of Mooney’s other sports, including its past softball success. Once upon a time, the Cougars were dominant in the sport, winning state titles in 1994 and 1995.
If and when the program reaches those heights, Falcione will be gone, having only this season to play. She could have bailed on the sport and spent her final high school days as a pure student, but she wanted to be part of something bigger than herself, she said.
“I wanted to experience the beginning of this with these girls,” Falcione said. “I want to finish my senior year strong.”
The program is taking itself seriously. The Cougars are hosting a camp this summer, June 24-27, for players aged 10-14. Mooney coaches and players will be running it, and Newsome said she wants to meet as many prospective players at the camp as possible.
The Cougars will have tough days. An 8-0 road defeat to Sarasota Christian’s varsity team March 12 was one of those. But the program is also filled with hope. Donelson said year three is when he expects his program to be competing for district titles (or more). His players are confident that will happen.
“We’re ready,” Newsome said. “We will be even better next year, so watch out.”