After their game against North Florida Christian on Friday night — a Florida High School Athletic Association Class 1S state semifinal — Cardinal Mooney High football players blared a horn that sounded like a truck speeding down the highway.
It was appropriate. In their game against the Eagles, the Cougars ran over their opponents with the force of a truck, hitting NFC with big plays on both sides of the ball early and often on their way to a 41-14 victory. It is the same attitude the team has played with all season, but especially in its three postseason games, where the team has outscored opponents 137-28. The attitude starts as soon as the team leaves its locker room, walking into the field as Johnny Cash's "God`s Gonna Cut You Down" blares through the stadium's loudspeakers. It continues on the field.
The Cougars are hoping that attitude will carry them through one more game.
The win over NFC put the Cougars in the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 1S state championship game. It will be the program's second state title game appearance and the first since 1972. Mooney (11-2) will play Ocala's Trinity Catholic (6-7) at 10 a.m. Dec. 8 at Bragg Memorial Stadium in Tallahassee for the title.
The school is holding a viewing party at Miller's Ale House starting at 9:45 a.m. Fans can RSVP by visiting the school's Instagram page and clicking on the Google link in the page's bio.
Despite the difference in the teams' records, no one at Mooney is taking this game lightly. Though Head Coach Jared Clark got a Gatorade bath following the win over NFC, he emphasized that the team's job was not finished — though he'd let his players celebrate for one night.
The team's coaches thought a season like this was possible back in the summer, when the team got a look at its talent during preseason practice, but it took effort, among other things, to make it happen.
"It's a little arrogant to say that you expected to play for a (state) title, but we knew we had the talent to do it," Clark said. "And you have to have things go your way. We're healthy. I think that has a lot to do with it. The injury gods smiled on us. But as far as, did I think we'd be playing for a state championship? I thought we had the talent."
At a time when many high school teams fail to play what coaches call "complementary football" — where one unit does things that help out another unit — Cardinal Mooney does. The team's offense has scored 137 points in the last three games, but it has been assisted by the rest of the team forcing six interceptions, two recovered fumbles and a blocked punt, often resulting in either a direct score or setting up the offense with a shortened field.
Against NFC, senior defensive back Zeshon Casimir blocked a punt following NFC's first possession of the game, which senior linebacker Jacob Brown picked up and returned for a touchdown. Casimir also had an end zone interception in the first quarter. Not only did he prevent a potential touchdown, but instead of attempting a return and hamstringing his offense by being close to its own end zone, he took a knee, spotting the ball at the 20 yard line and giving the offense a normal chance at a score.
Casimir said the defense is always ready for the other team's best shot.
"We kick the door down," Casimir said. "That's how the defense rolls. We come with energy every time. Practice, walkthroughs, games, it doesn't matter. And the job is not finished. We have one more to go. We have gone too long without a state championship. We're going to get it."
Casimir and the Cougars defense will be tasked with shutting down the Trinity Catholic attack. The Celtics' 6-7 record is due in part to having the most difficult schedule of any Class 1S team, according to the FHSAA's strength of schedule rating. Celtics sophomore center G'Nivre Carr already has offers from the University of Florida and the University of South Carolina and will test the Cougars' front seven. Junior quarterback Preston Wright has thrown for 1,883 yards and 19 touchdowns.
On defense, Trinity Catholic junior defensive back Courtney Patterson had 11 NCAA DI offers, including ones from the University of Missouri and Mississippi State University.
But the Cougars will not be intimidated, they said. They know the opportunity in front of them, and they don't plan on letting it pass them.
Like a truck speeding down the highway, the 2023 Cougars are coming through, one more time.
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.