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Cardinal Mooney girls basketball rebounds from early-season defeats

The Cougars, who have gone to three straight Final Fours, are 5-4 in their first nine games as of Dec. 15.

Cardinal Mooney girls basketball junior Kali Barrett (21) is the Cougars' leading scorer at 12.8 points per game as of Dec. 15.
Cardinal Mooney girls basketball junior Kali Barrett (21) is the Cougars' leading scorer at 12.8 points per game as of Dec. 15.
File photo
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If the Cardinal Mooney High girls basketball team is going to make it to a fourth-straight Final Four in Florida High School Athletic Association's Class 3A, they're going to do it the hard way. 

The Cougars have established themselves as one of the top programs in Florida, but the last three trips to Lakeland for the Final Four have yielded zero state titles, including last season, which ended with a 54-38 loss to Miami Country Day School in the title game. 

If the Cougars go back again, they don't want to leave empty-handed. 

Mooney Coach Marlon Williams encourages his team to keep fighting.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

That's why Head Coach Marlon Williams has loaded the team's early season schedule with some of the toughest opponents anyone can face. 

Iron sharps iron; the Cougars won't get any better playing teams with less talent than themselves. While the team believes the strategy will work in the long run, it has also put a damper on the team's record. Cardinal Mooney opened the season with two losses, the first a 44-33 loss to Chicago's Butler High — the eighth-ranked team in Illinois' Division 2A, according to MaxPreps — and the second a 62-46 loss to Montverde Academy, the No. 2-ranked team in the United States. 

It's not how the Cougars are used to starting a season, but it's what may serve them best. 

"The only way for us to develop and become a great team is starting off tough and being able to work through the kinks," Williams said. "We have to be a unit. We have to communicate well offensively and defensively. And this is the old-fashioned way, so we have to work hard."

Since the opening losses, Mooney is 5-2, good for a 5-4 overall record as of Dec. 15. They're still playing tough teams, like Charlotte High and Palm Bay High, but the Cougars are starting to beat them. Mooney beat Charlotte 51-41 on Nov. 28 and beat Palm Bay 50-44 on Dec. 2. The Cougars also beat Booker High — a Final Four participant in Class 4A last season — 78-44 on Dec. 12. 

Junior Kali Barrett leads the team with 12.8 points per game and is contributing 8.2 rebounds per game. Barrett said she believes the team is capable of getting back to the Final Four as long as the team keep its chemistry up. Like her coach, Barrett preaches patience. The team is learning how to add its more inexperienced players into the fold, Barrett said, some of whom as used to being the focal point of their previous teams. On the Cougars, everyone has to learn to fill a role. 

Sy'monique Simon is a lockdown defender on the Cardinal Mooney High girls basketball team.
File photo

A look at the team's stats sees that process playing out. Junior Sy'monique Simon is a lockdown defender who also averages 10.3 points per game. Freshman Madi Mignery leads the team with 10 rebounds per game and nearly averages a double-double (9.3 points per game). Sophomore Talia Busser is making 35% of her three-point shots (nine of 26) to give the team a boost from outside the arc. Sam Kotasek, the team's lone senior, provides leadership, while players like junior Bri Behn, junior Josie Maloni, junior Avery Davis and freshman Ava Bruno also provide key minutes. 

Absent from that list is Olivia Davis, who had been the program's fiery on-court leader for the previous four seasons. Davis is now playing at the University of Tampa. Williams said multiple players have stepped up to fill the team's leadership hole this season; if they're going to play as a unit, they'll need many voices contributing to it. 

"Everyone, in their own way, is taking steps (towards leadership)," Williams said. 

Going forward, the Cougars' schedule does not get much easier. Mooney will participate in two more tournaments plus play individual games against teams like Seffner Christian (8-0), American Heritage High (8-2) and the upstart Sailors of Sarasota High (5-2). The hope, Williams said, is that the Cougars keep getting better while taking these stepping stone games, until they are exactly where they want to be come the February postseason. 

"Every time they step on the floor, I see (their potential)," Williams said of his players. "This team is special. But everything takes time. It's not going to be an easy task. We all have to work together and we all have to work on the little details. But I've seen it. The greatness is there." 



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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