Three years in a row, the Cardinal Mooney High girls basketball team reached the sport's biggest game.
Three years in a row, the Cougars returned home disappointed.
On Feb. 25, the Cougars (21-6) fell 54-38 to Miami Country Day School (25-7) in the Florida High School Athletic Association Class 3A state championship game at the RP Funding Center in Lakeland. It was the program's third-straight title game loss after falling to Westminster Academy in 2022 and Miami Country Day in 2021.
As disappointing as the title game's result was, the Cougars should have a chance to return to the state tournament for a fourth time in 2023-2024. The Cougars will return seven of its eight players next season and will likely add more players, either from the junior varsity roster or from its incoming freshman class. All of its returning players will be upperclassmen, with forward Sam Kotasek being a senior and the other six players being juniors. It will be a far cry from the beginning of this season, when the Cougars had to not only learn a new coach's system, but replace three members of its starting lineup.
Forward Kali Barrett, guard Sy'monique Simon, and guard Bri Behn should form the team's primary scoring trio: Barrett averaged 15.2 points per game, Simon averaged 11.7 points per game and Behn averaged 6.9 points per game (but 10 points per game over her final three games).In the first year under Coach Marlon Williams, the team developed a defense-first mentality embodied by the team's penchant for steals and a quick transition game. With an offseason of development, all of these skills should develop further.
Asked about the program's future, Barrett uttered a single word: "Bright." After the game, Barrett took to Twitter to say she was proud of her team, but that never forget the feeling of watching Miami Country Day celebrate its championship win. Barrett and the Cougars are hoping that feeling is reversed in 12 months.
As bright as the team's future may be, it is a future that will not feature senior Olivia Davis, who will graduate this spring and play for the University of Tampa. Williams said the team is losing its emotion leader.
"You know Hulk Hogan?" Williams said, flexing his arms and mimicking the wrestler's scream. "That's what we're going to miss. That leadership, that passion. At practice, she comes in and its always just, 'Let's go.' I'm going to miss that fire."
The impression made Davis smile. Davis said the Cougars program has come to be more than a basketball team to her. Mooney has taught her to love all of her teammates and as a result deepened her love of the game itself, especially when the program helped her come back from a torn ACL her freshman year.
"I helped plant the seeds," Davis said. "Now it's up to Kali and Sy."
The state title game itself started close; Mooney trailed by a single point, 8-7, after one quarter. Miami Country Day broke the game open in the second quarter, outscoring the Cougars 23-12 for a 31-19 halftime lead. Mooney cut the lead to 39-29 after three quarters, but the Spartan's air-tight defense prevented the Cougars from scoring enough points to mount a comeback. The Cougars primarily attempted to score points inside the paint, but rushed some shots that led to uncharacteristic misses.
Williams said he did not think Miami Country Day's physical defense necessarily led to the inside misses; his team just didn't play its best.
"Our girls, I'm proud of them," Williams said. "(But) we missed key shots. There were a few details that we missed, a few players missed defensive assignments, and they're a well-coached team."
Miami Country Day Coach Ochiel Swaby said his team's defensive plan was to take away Davis' shot-making ability with double-teams and force other players to beat them — and actually told Davis as much after the game, as a sign of respect. Davis finished the game with 10 points on 2-10 shooting. Barrett led the Cougars with 16 points.
The Spartans were led by senior Kristina Godfrey, a Florida Atlantic University signee, who had 20 points on 9-13 shooting.
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.