Only one high school could have pulled Rafael Fernandez away from his prior position as the Lake Howell High athletic director in Winter Garden.
His high school.
The one where Fernandez played baseball under former coach and principal Steve Christie, forming close bonds with his teammates — a great group of guys, he said — and embracing a feeling of family that never left him. The one where Fernandez, a first-generation American whose family hails from Cuba, found a home. The one that not only provided an education but helped his family with the financial costs to do so, and gave him multiple mentors to talk through life's difficult decisions. The one he graduated from in 1991, but not before making lifelong memories.
When he heard that his school had an opening, Fernandez decided he had to go for it. On July 11, it became official: Fernandez was named the new athletic director at Cardinal Mooney High.
"It was perfect timing for everything," Fernandez said. "My family still lives there (in Sarasota) and my own kids have graduated. It's an opportunity for me to come home and to be closer to my family, and at the same time, to give back to the school and community that gave so much to me."
Fernandez is bringing experience from his prior stops, which include 10 years as the dean of students at South Seminole Academy (grades 6-8) before taking the Lake Howell job. Fernandez said the job of an athletic director includes a lot of administrative duties, like managing policies and compliances and scheduling the department's financial budget, in addition to sport-specific duties, so his well-rounded background works to his advantage.
Fernandez will take over the position from Larry Antonucci, who served in the role for four years. Fernandez inherits an athletic program that has not only seen on-field success in recent seasons, including back-to-back beach volleyball Sunshine State Athletic Conference state tournament titles in the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 seasons, but has upgraded its facilities, installing a turf football field in 2019 and beach volleyball courts in 2023 among other upgrades.
Fernandez said he is excited to continue those upgrades, keeping Mooney in the upper echelon of Sarasota-Manatee schools in the area as a result.
"I was impressed," Fernandez said. "There's a modern press box (at the school's stadium). There are great batting cages for the baseball and softball teams. The baseball field is getting worked on right now. The gym and the weight room are good. They have made an investment here and I am committed to continuing that."
Fernandez said he's committed to making sure the girls athletic facilities are as up-to-date as the boys athletic facilities at the school. It's a way to ensure that all Mooney athletes get the best experience possible, he said. Fernandez said the beach volleyball courts are a good example of a way to ensure that experience for female athletes, while also being a leg-up over most of the area in a burgeoning sport.
More than anything else, Fernandez is excited to talk with the Mooney community — not just athletes and coaches — and help in any way possible. While Fernandez enjoyed his past positions at bigger schools, he said, there was also something missing. He did not always know every student who played a sport as well as he wished he did. The same goes for some of the schools' assistant coaches. At Mooney, Fernandez said, he wants to be more involved in the day-to-day lives of everyone at the school, being as big of an influence on the school's athletes as he can.
"I just want to step in and be there," Fernandez said. "I want to use my experience and be a good support system for the school while guiding the athletic program, having that positive effect as a mentor."
Fernandez emphasized that he'll do what he can to help whoever wants to attend the private school do so, paying back the assistance he received as a teenager, even if the student in question is not interested in sports.
"This goes beyond athletics," Fernandez said. "It's about giving an opportunity. to experience a smaller classroom, a solid education. It's a place where kids can reach their potential."
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.