Cougars volleyball heads into state title game inspired by a classic franchise.
It is easy to forget some seven sequels later, but Rocky Balboa does not win his first title fight.
He gets off to a fast start against Apollo Creed, knocking him to the mat, but Creed battles back. Rocky tries his best to hang on, but Creed's punches start to get to him, though he never gets knocked out. The fight goes the distance. Even though Creed is named the winner, Rocky is proud of what he's done.
Then he trains even harder, and, well, you know the rest.
The Cardinal Mooney volleyball team did not, as of last month. They do now. Cougars coach Chad Sutton has been showing his team the "Rocky" series throughout this year's playoff run. In a lot of ways, he said, he sees his team as a mirror to Rocky. It, too, lost its first championship match after getting off to a fast start. The Cougars won the first two games against Trinity Catholic in 2018 before going the distance and losing in a heartbreaking fifth game.
This year has been the bounce back. The Cougars have sliced though the competition in the postseason, most recently hitting the road and avenging 2018 by taking down Trinity Catholic in five on Nov. 9. The win put them back in the state championship match. Cardinal Mooney (21-10) will play Westminster Christian (27-4) at 6:30 p.m. at Suncoast Credit Union Arena in Fort Myers on Nov. 16.
It will not be easy. The Warriors move the ball well, Sutton said, and are in sync as a unit. The Cougars will need to be at their best to walk out with the trophy. Sutton know that. He also knows how strong his team is.
"I think you are always a little nervous before games like this," Sutton said. "They (Westminster Christian) are a good team, but make no mistake, we are going there to win."
The experience of doing this before helps calm the nerves. So does watching Rocky triumph. Senior hitter Sophia Hritz said the films are inspiring. Watching him always — always — get back up is something the Cougars see in themselves. It took the team longer than usual to find its footing in 2019, Sutton said. Mixing in new players and suffering some early losses let to a lack of cohesion. That's OK, because its footing is solid now, and now is all that matters.
"It is empowering," Hritz said. "As a team, we have wanted this for so long. It feels like fate, almost. That win (against Trinity Catholic) meant a lot to us, and now we have a chance to prove ourselves even further."
No one knew Rocky when he first started boxing, senior setter Izabella Rae said. No one knew Cardinal Mooney, the minuscule Catholic school, before last year's run. People know the Cougars this year. They got everyone's best shot, and countered them all.
The Cougars blare "Eye of the Tiger" during practice, a sign of how much the team has embraced this identity. Sutton said Mooney, as of Nov. 12, still has to watch the "Creed" movies, but plans on doing so before Saturday.
They already know, then, that in "Rocky II," Rocky wins the title in his second shot. The Cougars will soon find out if their story has the same ending.