Instead of trying to ignore the pressure of being an elite team, Olivia Davis and her Cardinal Mooney High girls basketball teammates embrace it.
Davis, a junior point guard who lives in Lakewood Ranch, is the vocal leader of the Cougars, who are 12-3 and have their eyes on a state title after making a leap and reaching the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 3A championship game a season ago. Cardinal Mooney lost that game 59-34 to Miami Country Day School — a girls basketball dynasty that has won seven state titles in eight years — but has returned seven players from last year's roster and has added some talented freshmen in forward Kali Barrett and guard Sy'monique Simon.
The Cougars aren't going to sneak up on anyone and Davis, who leads the team with 18.8 points per game, said the Cougars like that every team knows it has to give its best against them. Cardinal Mooney had T-shirts made that depict a literal target on their backs, with all of the team's opponents scattered throughout the target's rings. Alongside the target, the shirt reads, "block out the noise."
"We're the talk of the town now," Davis said. "We know that everyone is coming for us and we love that. Everyone is giving us their best punch and we're taking them."
Davis, who is 5-foot-6, backs up her talk on the court. Besides leading the team in scoring, Davis is also tied for the team lead with 2.9 assists per game.
As well as Davis played last season, she is more confident this season. Davis said she has been playing smarter basketball, forcing opponents to play at Mooney's preferred tempo, which is typically fast. She has tried to diversify the ways she can attack on offense.
"Last year I was mainly a 3-point scorer," Davis said. "I wanted to be more of a playmaker, whether that means kicking the ball out to an open shooter or finishing a drive at the basket."
Davis is not afraid to make noise. In the first half of a road game against Sarasota High on Dec. 18, Davis hit a layup while getting fouled and let out a yell — not of pain, but of dominance. It was loud enough to make the baseline official jump in surprise and it fired up the Cougars. The confidence shown by their leaders, Davis and junior forward Jordyn Byrd, has been contagious.
"We're still a young team, believe it or not," Mooney head Coach Rico Antonio said. "We need to be pushed sometimes and Olivia, she pushes our players. It's a good dynamic."
Davis said the coaching staff has given her the freedom to give tips to her teammates. Davis credited her teammates with taking that instruction in stride. The Cougars are willing to do whatever it takes to improve and sometimes it is better to hear things from a teammate than a coach. Davis also makes sure to praise her teammates when they make smart plays.
"Being a point guard, it comes with the role," Davis said. "You just have to be that glue that holds people together. I want everyone to be successful. I light that fire under them because I want us to be the best we can be."
Though Davis is the team's leading scorer, she is hardly the Cougars' only offensive threat. Almost everyone on the team is capable of hitting a big shot, including Byrd, a Texas volleyball commit who is averaging 9.6 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, and freshman Kali Barrett, who is averaging 9.7 points per game. Davis said playing with teammates who want to win as much as she does is "phenomenal" and makes every game fun.
The Cougars' biggest challenges this year have come from within. Davis said the team has occasionally struggled to hold leads late in games, chalking that up to a lack of focus (herself included). It is something Davis said she knows must cease once the playoffs arrive in February.
"We get lax at times," Davis said. "I think we take big leads for granted and we feel like we have the game in the bag. We have to have the same energy after halftime that we do at the start."
Even with those lapses in focus, Mooney has rolled through the majority of its competition, only falling to two out-of-state teams (Mount Paran Christian of Georgia and Farragut High of Tennessee) and a perennial Florida power in Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High. The Cougars have five games left in the regular season. Mental lapses aside, Davis said the Cougars are on track to playing at full potential by the time the playoffs arrive. When they do that, there aren't many teams around that can stop them.
"We might take punches but we give them right back," Davis said.
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.