The Cougars were in a rut, then they weren't. What changed? Even the team doesn't know for sure.
There is magic in the desert.
To be spiritually reborn in Arizona sounds like the plot of a movie, but it is also the true story of what happened to Cardinal Mooney's volleyball team.
It traveled Oct. 4-5 to Phoenix for the Nike Tournament of Champions. Going in, seniors Anna Klemeyer and Madison Brown said, the team was in a mental rut. The Cougars were not playing poorly, but they weren’t their usual selves. They had lost to Leon, Riverview and Florida State University high schools in the previous weeks; Good teams, but teams with which they should be competitive. None of the matches went past a fourth set. Practices had become a slog, Klemeyer said. Not because of anything the coaches or players were doing. They were giving maximum effort, she said, but it still wasn't enough. The seniors — Klemeyer and Brown, plus Sophia Hritz and Izabella Rae — could not figure out why.
Maybe it couldn’t be helped. Brown said the team has had a workmanlike attitude this year. They are friends, she said, but not best friends. Not like last year, when the team would go straight from practice to hangout sessions. That’s not a bad thing, Brown said. The team knows practice is a time to get to business.
Still, something was off. Klemeyer said the seniors, trying to be leaders, went to Coach Chad Sutton and asked him to analyze the problem. He had no answers He had tried running practices a few different ways, but nothing worked. The team remained flat.
Then the Cougars landed in Arizona and got rocked. Sutton said the team won its first match, then lost the next two. But that night, something changed, something neither Sutton nor his players could pinpoint. The closest Brown could get was this: Cardinal Mooney decided, individually, that enough was enough. The team found an energy reserve it didn’t know it had. When the players awoke the next morning, things felt different, Brown said. The Cougars lost to Sacred Heart High in their first match, but played much better. They then rattled off three straight wins, including one over Trinity Catholic, the team that beat them in the state final in 2018.
“It was the most fun I have ever had with this team,” Brown said.
Since then, the Cougars have lost once, on the road to Clearwater Central Catholic. And even that went five sets. They did not drop a set on their way to another district championship. Klemeyer said practices have been as lively as ever. There's effort in every approach and arm swing. Each step has a purpose, Brown said, because each step is a step toward a bigger goal.
Sutton said he's proud of the way his team responded. He's reminding them, though, that the real challenge is now. The regional playoffs begin Oct. 24 for Mooney when it plays Carrollwood Day School at home. It then will have to face four teams in the top-15 of the state.
"I told them, you have the chance to be not just state champions, but legends," Sutton said. "One of the best teams ever. Because, think about it. Someone has to do it. All these teams have to play each other and someone has to win."
Klemeyer and Brown said they were up for the challenge. They are sacrificing Homecoming parties and other typical high school activities to devote themselves to the sport. "It is 100% worth it," Brown said.
Maybe it was only a matter of time before the team realized its potential. Or maybe, the magic of the desert gave Mooney a helping hand.