In year two under coach Jared Clark, the Cardinal Mooney football team improved from 2-7 to 7-4 thanks to continuity and the development of young players.
In year three, there's a feeling that further development of Mooney's core could lead to a special season.
""We're going to have an experienced team, and I am hopeful that will pay off for us," Clark said. "We're excited to get this thing rolling."
That feeling doesn't come without some question marks. Like many teams in Sarasota and the surrounding area this season, Cardinal Mooney is forced to make a change at quarterback after the graduation of a starter, in this case, Tayven Clark who made things happen through the air and on the run.
Following in Clark's footsteps will be junior Johnny Antonucci, the backup quarterback a season ago, but also a free safety in the defensive secondary for the Cougars, showcasing his athleticism and his willingness to help the team.
At a Suncoast Media Day event Aug. 6 at The Mall at University Town Center, Clark said Antonucci would stay after practice last season to throw 100 passes and keep his arm sharp. That extra work is now paying off, Clark said.
"He's got a big arm and he's got a lot of talent around him," Clark said. "I'm excited to see what happens."
That talent includes junior Carson Beach, the 5-foot-11 running back who gained 624 yards (4.8 yards a carry) and scored 11 touchdowns in 2021. He showcased both quickness and an ability to fight for tough yardage. Beach's body of work, and his performance at camps this summer, earned him scholarship offers from Tennessee and South Florida. With a newcomer at quarterback, it would not be a surprise for Beach to get a lot of work early in the season as the offense finds a rhythm. This year, Beach is listed as a running back/wide receiver on Mooney's MaxPreps roster, so it is possible that the Cougars also line him up wide.
This could give Lennard High transfer Zeshon Casimir, a junior who appears set to start at safety, some carries at running back as well; Casimir ran for a touchdown in Mooney's spring game against Island Coast High.
The rest of the Mooney receiving corps is talented, too. Even though Mooney lost leading receiver Ryan Matulevich to Venice High, the Cougars return senior Cooper Flerlage, who caught 31 passes for 477 yards and five touchdowns. Flerlage is a big body at 6-foot-4, 195 pounds, and he can run, making him a threat all over the field. He'll be joined by, among others, sophomore Chris McCorkle, who caught 28 passes for 496 yards and five touchdowns for South Charleston High (West Virginia) in 2021.
The offensive line will be led by senior Ian Parker, who at 6-foot-0 and 240 pounds will be stepping into the left tackle role as well as being one of the team's vocal leaders.
"We're embracing the expectations," Parker said. "We have been working our tails off and we are not letting anything get to us. All that hype is poison. We are not going to let it get to our heads. We're going to go week by week and see how far we can take it."
There is a lot to be excited about on offense — and Clark is. But Mooney's defense might be even more impactful than its offense. Junior defensive back Teddy Foster joined the football team after three games last season and used his pure athleticism to not just earn playing time, but make a real impact. His talent has caught the eye of colleges and Foster is now one of the fastest-rising recruits in the region, picking up offers this summer from Tennessee, Indiana, Rutgers, South Florida and Florida International. Casimir and McCorkle will also see major minutes in the secondary.
In front of them, the team's five leading tacklers all return. That group is led by senior JR Rosenberg, who had 108 tackles (71 solo) at linebacker in 2021 and is one of the team's biggest leaders.
On the defensive line is senior Jack Mackinnon, who was second on the team with 80 total tackles and led the Cougars with 19 tackles for loss and 10.5 sacks. Junior George Leibold, a hybrid linebacker/lineman, had 65 tackles. Junior Jacob Brown, a linebacker, had 59. Senior Kyle Cooke, a defensive end, had 54 (and 4.5 sacks). The group of five had 62.4% of the team's total tackles a season ago and could come close to that percentage again in 2022.
The Cougars allowed 20.4 points a game in 2021; thanks to Mooney's amount of returning and new talent, do not be surprised if that number is even lower this season.
In the new Florida High School Athletic Association classification system, Mooney is in the Suburban 1 Class, in a two-team district with John Carroll Catholic. This gives Mooney great freedom in scheduling and the team took advantage of it, playing games against Suburban 4 schools like Lakewood Ranch High and Sarasota High to play against heightened competition. They also host rival Bishop Verot High at home, among other games.
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.