It did not make for the prettiest game of football ever played, but Cardinal Mooney High and Booker High last Friday showcased their defensive strength on Week One of the Florida High School Athletic Association season.
In a world where success is the only thing that matters, not how it occurs, coaches will happily trade aesthetics for victory.
Mooney defeated Booker 10-9 at home. The Cougars took an early 10-0 thanks to a safety, a kick return touchdown from junior wideout Griffin Gisotti and a two-point conversion from junior running back Carson Beach (which was made possible because of a Booker encroachment penalty.) Mooney then spent the rest of the game scratching and clawing to retain that lead.
The Tornadoes picked up a 29-yard field goal, then an interception return for a touchdown by junior Rah'shad Hill, but a mishandled snap on the extra point attempt denied a chance to tie the game. The Tornadoes later had a potential game-winning field goal blocked. Though Booker's offense got closer to scoring a touchdown than Mooney's offense, neither found the end zone.
It was a somewhat surprising turn of events considering both teams scored more than 50 points in their preseason Kickoff Classic games the week prior. Both offenses also feature players with NCAA Division I offers in Beach (Tennessee, South Florida) and Booker sophomore wideout Rashawn Peterson (Florida State, Penn State, South Florida among others). Yet in the end, the offensive struggles — or defensive prowess, depending on your perspective — could be a good omen for both teams as the season continues.
Mooney coach Jared Clark said he was happy to see his special teams unit make winning plays as that unit has worked hard to be an advantage during the offseason.
"It's been a huge emphasis," Clark said. "We got a touchdown, blocked a field goal and came close to blocking a punt. And I'm so proud of our defense, too. They didn't flinch one time. They did a heck of a job."
Mooney's defensive breakout star was sophomore cornerback Chris McCorkle, who transferred into the program from South Charleston High (West Virginia). McCorkle played on both sides of the ball at South Charleston, but against Booker was used solely in the defensive secondary, where he put his wide receiver skills to use anyway.
McCorkle snagged an interception off Booker senior quarterback Will Carter Jr. toward the end of the second quarter and almost had two more in the second half — one was ruled to have been caught out of bounds on a close play and another was brought back because of offsetting penalties (which had nothing to do with McCorkle). If McCorkle can continue that level of playmaking, he and junior cornerback Teddy Foster, who had offers from Tennessee and Indiana among others, could make an intimidating tandem.
Clark said most of his offense's mistakes were execution-based, missing a block here or a throw there. He also gave credit to Booker's defense and said the Tornadoes did exactly what he thought they would do scheme-wise. They just did it quite well. Mooney will have to be better in all offensive areas, but especially the passing game. Junior quarterback Johnny Antonucci completed seven of 19 passes for 45 yards and threw two interceptions. Last year's leading receiver, senior Cooper Flerlage, was held without a catch.
Booker's first-year coach Scottie Littles was not as pleased with his team, especially its lack of discipline, but expressed confidence in the Tornadoes to get right.
"We had three or four chances to win that game," Littles said. "We probably deserved to win. We have to find a way to continue the fight. We didn't make enough plays in the end. Saw some really bright things with the defense. They were flying around."
For a program that went 0-8 in 2021, keeping close with a team that has high expectations was an encouraging start to the Littles era. There were flashes of talent, like sophomore wideout Josiah Booker catching six passes for 60 yards, mostly on screen passes, that the Tornadoes will exploit against other opponents. But the Tornadoes will also have to improve their fundamentals. Littles said he was unhappy with the team's run blocking; junior Ahmad Hunter ran for 80 yards on 18 carries. The Tornadoes also struggled snapping the ball at times, with a particularly low snap leading to Mooney's first-quarter safety.
This week, Mooney will hit the road to play Lakewood Ranch High (0-0), which had its opener against Lemon Bay High canceled because of lightning, and Booker will play Southeast High (0-1), which lost 50-0 to Coconut Creek High. Both Mooney and Booker have an opportunity to win their respective games with improved play.
As week one's game showed, strong defense will give teams an opportunity to win. It's up to Mooney and Booker to snatch it.
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.