- January 16, 2022
The Cardinal Mooney girls basketball program has a distinct East County flavor.
The Cougars, one of the premier teams in the state, are seeking their third-straight trip to the Florida High School Athletic Association state final four in Class 3A. As of Feb. 4, Mooney is 17-5 and on Feb. 3 captured its third-straight district title with a 70-30 home win over Bradenton Christian (12-10).
Another year of success was not a guarantee for the Cougars, who lost three starters — one to transfer, two to graduation — and their head coach during the offseason. But Mooney did return a strong trio of players, all of whom live in the East County area, that new Head Coach Marlon Williams has counted on to lead the Cougars back to their past heights.
Olivia Davis is the team's lone senior. Davis, the team's emotional leader on and off the court, is averaging 16 points, 3.5 assists and 3.2 rebounds per game and has signed with the University of Tampa. The 5-foot-7 Davis is joined by two sophomores who have seen their roles and responsibilities expand from a season ago. Kali Barrett, 6-foot-1, is a versatile player who leads the team with 16.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game; Sy'monique Simon, 5-foot-6, is an aggressive defender and leads the team with 1.7 steals per game while adding 12 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.
Williams and the Mooney coaching staff were bullish on the trio from the start and knew they could carry the load on a successful team.
It took the East County trio a bit longer to adjust to Williams' coaching style, which puts an emphasis on conditioning and demands its on-court leaders getting the little things right.
"We hate running 'suicides,'" Davis said with a laugh. "But they do pay off in games. We can full-court press the whole game. It's the best thing for us."
The Cougars run not only typical "suicide" drills — down the court and back, in sections — but a defensive variation, running sideways with bent knees and hands held high, which Barrett said is even more tiring. The trio may not always want to do them, but to set an example for their teammates, they complete them full bore.
"We always start out on the defensive end playing hard," Williams said. "That's pretty much it. Play help defense. Follow your man. All these things that you are taught at a young age, we try to hang our hat on those. But it's a challenge. Playing defense is not the most glamorous thing. Everybody wants to shoot the Steph Curry 3, but the defense is always going to be the core of a good basketball team."
Before the team saw the results of the intense training and defense-first mindset, players were skeptical, Davis said. All it took was a few games for everyone to change their minds. A 65-47 home win over Tampa Prep (20-8) was especially convincing.
Of the Cougars' five losses, only one came against a team with double-digit losses, and that was a 54-51 loss to Brooks DeBartolo Collegiate High (12-10), which MaxPreps has ranked as the No. 8 team in Class 3A. The Cougars beat the teams they should beat and can compete with anyone on their best days.
The trio's leadership is even more important when its depth is considered. This year, the Cougars have just eight players on their roster. The lack of depth means lots of playing time for Davis, Barrett and Simon, a role the trio has embraced. They do have help — sophomore guard Bri Behn adds 7.1 points and 5.0 rebounds per game, and junior forward Sam Kotasek adds 5.1 points and 3.5 rebounds per game, for instance — but when games get into crunch time, it's going to be one of the three leaders taking the biggest shots.
Simon said all three East County players want responsibility put on their shoulders as players who have been to the state Final Four and know what it will take to get back.
"It's fun to know we're going to be pushed to new heights," Simon said. "You're going above your 'limit' and reaching your full potential."
The Cougars' potential is lofty. Mooney is ranked fourth in Class 3A and 17th in Florida by MaxPreps. As of Feb. 4, the Class 3A regional tournament bracket has not been released, so Mooney's next opponent is unknown. Not that the Cougars much care. After two years of reaching the Final Four, and reaching the state championship game a season ago, Mooney is not scared of any challenger.
Davis said she does believe there is any extra pressure to take home a state title because it is her senior year, as she always feels pressure to win every game, she said. Davis said the team is doing everything it can to make sure a return trip to the Final Four in Lakeland happens. The Cougars will worry about the rest once they get there.
"Sometimes we come into practice tired or we're having a bad day," Barrett said. "That stuff can't matter. When we're in the gym we need to block out everything else. By the end of practice we're always laughing and having the best time, but during it we need to work. That's how we'll get back (to the state championship game)."