The Cardinal Mooney community has embraced volleyball in 2019.
The Cardinal Mooney High student section, clad in suits, ties and other business attire, let out a ferocious howl when one member held up a broom like it was Excalibur.
It was the third game of Mooney's regional semifinal volleyball match against Bishop McLaughlin High. The Cougars entered the home match ranked 11th in the state, all classifications, by the FHSAA; Bishop McLaughlin was 15th. On paper, this should have been a slobberknocker. In reality, it was a quick knockout.
The broom went up when the Cougars led 22-11. A few points later, the chant began: “Get your broomstick (clap, clap, clap clap, clap).” The crowd wanted a sweep, and a sweep the crowd received. The Cougars (19-10) took the game 25-14 and the match 3-0. They will advance to the Class 3A regional final — essentially the state's Elite Eight — and will hit the road to play Calvary Christian (26-2), ranked eighth in the state, at 7 p.m. on Nov. 5.
You can bet on there being a large Mooney contingent at that match, too. This season, the community has embraced the sport like never before. Senior volleyball player Sophia Hritz, who had 12 kills and 12 digs in the Bishop McLaughlin match, said the student sections have been dialed up this year. “Business attire” was this one, but the school has also done themes according to the opponent, like dressing up as hunters when playing the Riverview High Rams or fishermen when playing the Charlotte High Tarpons.
It’s not just the students, either. After the Bishop McLaughlin match, Kendal Casey, 8, asked members of the team to sign her Mooney shirt. It was adorable, but it was also emblematic of the embrace the volleyball program has felt. They are making this playoff run for everyone, now.
Some of that has to do with Coach Chad Sutton, now teaching weightlifting and other classes at the school, giving him more bonding time with non-volleyball students. The student section held up a cutout of Sutton’s head at the Bishop McLaughlin match and had their own “breakdown” with Sutton after the match, just like the team has. (Sutton simply laughed when asked about that.)
But some of it has to do with the team itself. After reaching the state championship game last year, the Cougars proved themselves to be the school’s premier program. They got a school to believe in a sport other schools view as an afterthought. All it took was convincing fans to give it a chance.
“I think people understand the sport a little better,” Hritz said. “Our ‘Cougar Crazies’ mean everything to us. They talk about it (the volleyball season) at school now. We made such an effort to get people out here and it is special to see their support.”
If you are not on board now, there’s still time, but the train is leaving the station, so to speak. Mooney is the last team standing, after Riverview fell 3-0 to Steinbrenner High on Oct. 29. Even if your family has ties to a rival school, wouldn’t you like to see a state title come to Sarasota? Fun fact: This is my fourth high school sports season here, and I have yet to witness a team state championship, for the Sarasota teams we cover or the Manatee County teams I cover with our sister paper, the East County Observer. I would like that to change, and I think the Cougars have a chance to do that. They played the toughest schedule in the state — according to the FHSAA’s strength of schedule metric — for a reason, for this reason, to ready themselves for the road ahead.
Now, the Elite Eight awaits.