The team has gone 16-4 since an 0-3 start.
Name something that could go wrong for a volleyball team, and it probably happened to Cardinal Mooney High at the beginning of this season.
Ankle injuries, concussions and illnesses were among them, plaguing seemingly the entire roster. As a result, the Cougars didn’t have their full roster at practice until a month into the season, and started 0-3. It’s not what second-year coach Chad Sutton wanted, especially coming off a campaign that showed the promise of the school’s younger players. But it’s difficult to create the court synergy needed to succeed without the players being around each other every day in practice.
There was also a different problem.
After the Cougars’ first match of the year, a four-set loss at Charlotte High, Sutton stood on the team bus and asked how many players had been part of a winning season before. Not one hand was raised, he said. Sutton believes winning is something that must be learned to accomplish consistently, and wishes he knew how little experience his team had with the concept before the season began.
The Cougars always had the talent. They simply didn’t know how to channel it when they needed it most. Now, however, they are learning to do just that. Since the 0-3 start, Cardinal Mooney has gone 16-4, including a 6-1 record in Class 5A, District 9. Getting everyone healthy has helped, as has the team listening to Sutton's message.
It was a four-set road loss to Braden River High Sept. 21 that jump-started the turnaround. Cougars junior Kali Plattner said the loss was a “slap in the face” because the team knew it was good enough to win. Sutton did, too.
“After the game, Coach called a meeting and said it was our mentality holding us back,” Plattner said. “We were not competitive enough. We had to turn it up. And after that, we did.”
Practices got harder, and the Cougars responded. They practice in "Mooney Mentality" shirts, the back of which reads, "Winners focus on winning. Losers focus on winners." Not only did they keep up with the tempo, but they also started to believe in themselves, Plattner among the biggest believers.
Last season, Plattner was a reserve defensive player, Sutton said, but this year made the switch to outside hitter and exceeded all of her coach's expectations.
“She just … boom,” Sutton said, making a rocket motion with his left hand. “She has completely taken to the role and the responsibility that comes with it.”
The team has also taken motivation from junior captain Sophia Hebda, who has played the entire season at less than 100% after tearing her ACL during the spring basketball season, Sutton said. She’s not a person of many words, he said, but has the ears of her teammates when she decides something needs to be said. Playing through pain only enforces the respect she has in the locker room, Plattner added.
“Right when it (the injury) happened, I knew that she would be back playing for us,” Plattner said of Hebda. “She works hard. She wasn’t going to let it stop her.”
The last week has given Cardinal Mooney the chance to show the progress it has made in a few months. The team went 3-1 at the Gene Gorman Invitational at host Charlotte Oct. 7, beating Braden River High in straight sets along the way, avenging the earlier loss that haunted them.
There was not an opportunity to play Charlotte, the team that handed the Cougars that season-opening loss, at the tournament, but there was on Oct. 10. Cardinal Mooney hosted the Tarpons, and beat them in five sets (25-21, 23-25, 25-27, 25-14, 17-15). That talent that hid itself at the beginning of the season isn't hiding anymore. Plattner led the team with 21 kills, and the team’s lone senior, Lauren Medenis, whom Sutton also praised for growing into the role of setter and leading the team on the court, had 35 assists and 29 digs.
The Cougars will have to continue their hot streak a little longer if they want to meet their goals. Their district tournament begins Oct. 16.
"We can't let our focus drop or play to the level of our competition," Plattner said. "We have to stay intense."