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Cardinal Mooney beach volleyball in search of second state title — within one week

The Cougars won the SSAC title last weekend in Taveras and will compete for the FHSAA title this weekend in Tallahassee.

The Cardinal Mooney beach volleyball team captured the SSAC state title on Saturday in Taveras. The Cougars hope it is the first of two titles they win this season. Courtesy photo.
The Cardinal Mooney beach volleyball team captured the SSAC state title on Saturday in Taveras. The Cougars hope it is the first of two titles they win this season. Courtesy photo.
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After a whirlwind weekend, the Cardinal Mooney High beach volleyball team was not its dominant self against Lakewood Ranch High in a Florida High School Athletic Association state tournament play-in match at UMR Sports in Bradenton. 

The Cougars won and will advance to the state tournament, but it was not easy. One of the team's top two pairs, junior Jordyn Byrd and sophomore Sawyer DeYoung, lost its individual match to Lakewood Ranch's Mackenzie Schmucker, a senior, and Andrea Dietz, a junior, in three sets. Mooney's freshman pair, Piper Carson and Ella Shuel, also lost to the Mustangs' top pairing of seniors Ashley and Brooke Pater, who will both be playing the sport at the college level next season. But Mooney's three other pairs won, giving them a 3-2 overall victory. 

Forgive the Cougars for not being at their best. They were, after all, coming off a state championship victory. 

Mooney junior Madeline Carson serves against Lakewood Ranch.
Mooney junior Madeline Carson serves against Lakewood Ranch.

Mooney defeated Merritt Island High 4-1 in Tavares on Saturday to capture the Sunshine State Athletic Conference state championship. It was the team's third and final match of the tournament and the culmination of the first half of Mooney's season-long plan to win two state championships, the inaugural FHSAA tournament — taking place Friday and Saturday in Tallahassee — being the other. 

Winning one state title was a challenge. Though the final 4-1 score appears to indicate separation between Mooney and Merritt Island, Mooney coach Chad Davis said the match was much closer than that. Two of the individual matches Mooney eventually won went to three sets, and Mooney occasionally trailed in them. If a few bounces had gone a different way, who know what would have happened, Davis said. He does not want his team to get too high off the victory; there is still work to be done, he said, and equally challenging opponents to face. 

That said, Saturday was still worthy of celebration on its own. Junior Madeline Carson and sophomore Helena Hebda, the team's other elite pair, laid out the scene.

"When the last two games went to a third set and we were on the verge of winning, we felt it," Carson said. "We were about to serve for the win when they (freshman Izzy Russell and junior Gracie Page) won their game. Everyone trampled on each other and we were all screaming." 

Working hard does not seem to be an issue for the Cougars. Davis said he offered to give the team a day off Sunday to allow for rest before facing Lakewood Ranch, but the team wanted to hold a practice, so he held one. Given how tired the team looked against Lakewood Ranch, Davis said, that might not have been the best idea in retrospect, but he appreciates their dedication regardless. 

"How can you not be (tired)?" Davis said. "I'm proud that they dug in. We were not as sharp as we normally are but it was enough to get the win against a good team. We're thankful and we're ready to advance."

The team will have the rest of the week to recover before heading to Tallahassee for the 16-team FHSAA tournament. The Cougars (21-1) play Venice High (16-0) first. If Mooney gets past the Indians, it will play the winner of Calvary Christian (13-1) and Berkeley Prep (10-3) for a Final Four spot. If the team is going to pull off its two-title plan, it will need to be at its best. 

Carson and Hebda said they believe the Cougars can do it. 

"I think we have been confident all season," Hebda said. "We know our team and how we can play. We know how to step it up. I don't think we feel any more pressure in these matches than others. We feel a drive that tells us we can do this."

Carson, the pair's more offensive-focused player, said Hebda has more beach volleyball experience than her and has been invaluable in terms of Carson learning the sport's nuances, while Hebda, a defensive stalwart, said the pair's constant communication allows for the pair to pull off "two ball" strategies — hitting over the net on the second touch instead of the third touch — to great effect, catching the opponents off guard. This season is the first time Carson and Hebda have been a beach pair, but they have quickly developed the chemistry necessary to compete at the sport's highest levels. 

All of the team's pairs have. Now the Cougars are attempting something that would secure the program's place in history books. 

"The biggest thing is mentally being able to handle the big pressure points," Davis said. "Once you break through and win like they did on Saturday, you start to think you can do this. We know some of these teams and we know it is going to be tough, but if you get to this stage you're giving yourself a chance. We're gong to give it our best. It would be icing on top of the cake."



Ryan Kohn

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.

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