- November 3, 2022
Last year, on its way to a state title, the Cardinal Mooney High beach volleyball team had to drive to a public court like the ones at Bee Ridge Park to practice.
Now, all the Cougars have to do is walk outside.
The Cougars debuted their new beach volleyball courts, located next to the team's football stadium, in a Feb. 28 match against Sarasota Christian. The match resulted in a 5-0 win for the Cougars, but that was a secondary concern: all anyone wanted to talk about were the courts.
"Who thought we could pull it off?" Davis said. "This is a dream come true. It's a great day for our seniors and all the kids, who are like, 'We can't believe this is happening.'"
Davis has been a proponent of adding courts to Mooney's campus since he took over the volleyball program, indoor and beach, from Chad Sutton in January 2021. The dream only took the shape of something resembling reality recently; Davis said he got approval from Mooney principal Ben Hopper to move forward with the courts in late November, then had to come up with the money for the courts in three weeks, and they didn't come cheap: Davis said the courts cost approximately $50,000, a large percentage of which was spent on high-quality sand.
Thanks to the generosity of the Mooney community, Davis said, the program raised the funds. Then, through a volleyball family connection, Davis found a construction company that could build the courts in two months to be ready for the start of the Florida High School Athletic Association's preseason practice window on Feb. 6.
Davis said he's impressed and thankful that everyone worked together to get the courts built in a short amount of time — he would have been ecstatic if they were ready a month from now, he said — but he's equally impressed by their quality. The three courts are surrounded by fencing and the high-quality sand provides an ideal playing surface. Emblazoned on each net's padding are the names of the families who donated money to the cause, sponsoring that specific court. The top of each net features writing that lets players know where they are: "Mooney Beach."
"Obviously I'm biased, but I think it looks awesome," Davis said. "This will set the standard, I think, for beach complexes. It's great for spectators, too."
That second point is one that has not escaped the attention of Mooney players. While the school's indoor volleyball matches regularly draw strong crowds — and get loud interactions from the student section — beach volleyball matches, played on the road or at public courts, have largely been limited to a crowd of parents. Now that matches can be hosted at the school in the afternoons, the Cougars are hoping more of their peers pay attention to the team's success.
"No one's had an opportunity to see us play," senior Gracie Page said. "They only hear about it afterwards. Now students can come, teachers too, and they can see how different beach volleyball is from indoor. I get a lot of questions about that. A lot of people think it's the same sport, just on sand, when it's not. I hope they come out and see the differences."
Page's playing partner, senior Sawyer DeYoung, said she's expecting home matches against other premier programs like Venice High and Berkeley Prep to be intense, and she'd like it if the crowd matched that intensity. At Mooney, despite blasting music at practice, the Cougars take the beach season as seriously as they do the indoor season, evidenced by the team attempting to win two different state titles on back-to-back weekends a season ago. Though the team only won one of them, the Sunshine State Athletic Conference state championship, the Cougars proved themselves to be among the elite of the elite.
With practices now easier than ever to arrange, and a bevy of talent back, the Cougars are gunning for another title. It's not only the ease of the courts that give the team an advantage it didn't have a season ago, but the amount of them. Davis said having three courts available will allow the team to use two as space for their top-five pairs, while the three court will be used to train everyone else in the program and prepare them for when it is their time to shine. Davis said there are now 21 kids in the program, up from 10 when he took control.
Helena Hebda, the program's beach volleyball captain, said she hopes the advantages of the new courts mean the team is set up to have its best season yet, and that everyone on the team knows what needs to be done to make that happen.
"We can never take any reps off," Hebda said. "We play a lot of games in practice, so things stay competitive, and that helps us. It translates to our matches. And we can't give up. Last year we did a good job of fighting back no matter the score."
Her coach agrees. Davis said he's proud of what is being built within the program and believes last year's postseason success can continue, assuming his team, top to bottom, plays how he knows it can.
"You have to win three out of five (scoring) pairs to win a match," Davis said. "Someone's going to have to be really good to knock off three of our pairings. If our girls play the way they should, we're going to be tough to beat."