As is the custom, Cardinal Mooney boys basketball coach Vince Cherry and Out-of-Door Academy boys basketball coach B.J. Ivey went through the handshake line after their teams battled Dec. 7, a game that ended with Cherry's team the winner, 75-41.
It was all routine, like the two men had never met and would never meet again.
But a few minutes later, both emerged from the locker room with a different tone. This time, nothing about the embrace was subdued. Both coaches laughed and smiled as Ivey, Cherry's former coach at Riverview High, congratulated his protege on the big win.
It was a sign of the caliber of job Cherry has done since taking over the Mooney job this offseason. Cardinal Mooney is 5-0 as of Dec. 8. None of their wins have been by less than 18 points. On Dec. 6, the Class 3A Cougars beat Braden River High, a Class 6A team, by 44, 72-28.
This, from a program that went 7-13 in 2020.
"The biggest thing has been the kids buying in," Cherry said after the ODA game. "They have not just accepted their roles but embraced them. That's what I have been trying to preach. This is a team game. It's not about individuals."
To that end, Cherry has figured out how to use the myriad talents that Mooney has to great effect. The Cougars are perhaps the deepest team in the area. Against ODA, eight players scored; four of them in double-figures. Sophomore Dylan Higgins led the way with 19. Against Braden River, nine players scored and senior A.J. Russo led the team with 18. Against Sarasota Christian on Nov. 30, a 72-39 win, it was junior Drew Carter who led the way with 15. Sophomore Connor Heald was second with 14. When a team has that many ways to get the ball in the basket, it becomes a challenge to guard, no matter the opponent.
Higgins said the team's confidence comes from its on-court chemistry.
"I know our team and we are going to stick together, even if we have some rough times (in the future)," Higgins said.
The Cougars' commitment to the program and each other started in the fall, Cherry said. The program had between 25 and 30 roster hopefuls coming to workouts every day, Cherry said, which was an encouraging sign that interest in the program was real. And they weren't simply showing up; there was work being done. All of those players are now either on the varsity or junior varsity rosters — and Cherry is quick to point out how valuable the junior varsity team (which is 4-1 as of Dec. 8) is to the overall program when a new coach arrives. That is where depth is built for the long run. To have it now, enough to push the varsity players into having great preseason practices and workouts, was a blessing.
Cherry said the team's future success will hinge on the Cougars continuing to be as team-oriented as they have been through the season's first few weeks — though that doesn't mean no individual players have surprised him. One is sophomore guard/forward Franklin Liriano, who has done a lot of little things for the Cougars that add up to a large impact. Against ODA, Liriano had seven points, but he also played defense with the stickiness of a Venus flytrap.
Still, Cherry is wary of the road ahead.
"We cannot be satisfied," Cherry said. "We cannot get complacent. Yeah, we have started off hot. That's great. But that can't be all. I'm not satisfied with our play. I think we have a lot of room to improve."
The Cougars have games against Bradenton Christian, Sarasota High and Venice High before 2021 ends, then the schedule ramps up in January with games against perennially strong programs such as Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High, Riverview High and Booker High. The game against the Class 8A Rams will be an especially intriguing test for the Cougars. If there's one thing the Cougars lack, it's team length. The Cougars are fast and skilled, but relatively on the smaller side, save 6-foot-6 senior forward Peter Liashek.
It is possible that the Cougars are good enough for that to not matter. But if nothing else, the way they play the game — aggressive yet efficient — is a treat.
"I think we're real fun to watch," Cherry said. "We're picking up full court (defense). We're playing fast, getting up and down the court on offense. We even have had a few highlight dunks so far. It's been good, so come on out and watch us."
The lights in the Mooney gym were going down, so the team's basking in the postgame glow couldn't last forever. Neither could Cherry's catch-up with Ivey. That didn't make it any less special for the man who beat his mentor.
Cherry said he's excited about every moment of the team's hot start — but that yes, the game against ODA and Ivey was a little different.
"It was real fun," Cherry said with a smile. "When you look over and see your (former) coach on the other sideline, that's pretty amazing. It was nice to get the win."
Ryan Kohn is the sports editor for Sarasota and East County and a Missouri School of Journalism graduate. He was born and raised in Olney, Maryland. His biggest inspirations are Wright Thompson and Alex Ovechkin. His strongest belief is that mint chip ice cream is unbeatable.