- October 29, 2020
Getting to Tallahassee was enough of a prize.
Head Coach Chad Davis and the Cardinal Mooney High beach volleyball program (24-2) had already won one state title, from the Sunshine State Athletic Conference tournament, in April. Reaching the Florida High School Athletic Association state tournament, held May 12-13 in Tallahassee, would be a strong way to end the season; whatever happened after that was a bonus.
Not only because of the quality of the teams at the tournament, but because Davis knew three of his top players — seniors Madeline Carson, Gracie Page and Sawyer DeYoung — would not be available to play in the tournament because they would be at the school's graduation, walking the stage in their caps and gowns.
It's why Davis put such and emphasis on reaching the tournament at all: he wanted his seniors to go out with a win. The rest of the team will be back in 2024, with room to improve, so anything they did in Tallahassee would be experience for next season. Davis got what he wanted: with a hard-fought 3-2 win over Berkeley Prep (16-2), the Cougars were bound for the state tournament.
That's when things got interesting.
In a weekend Davis now calls "The Miracle in the Sand," Mooney went to Tallahassee down three key players and took wins over Merritt Island High (4-1) and Bradenton Christian (3-2), the latter coming down to a final set win from freshmen pair Layla Larrick and Violet Weiser. The two wins put Mooney in the state final four, where the Cougars faced defending champion New Smyrna Beach High (28-0), who is ranked No. 2 in the country by MaxPreps as of May 16.
It took some maneuvering. With the seniors gone, Davis and his assistant coaches Derrick Duquette and Rick Fisher had to flip the team's pairings. Instead of breaking up the team's bottom three pairs, the coaches moved sophomore Ella Shuel into the top pairing alongside junior Helena Hebda, then created a brand-new second pair in sophomore Zoe Kirby and freshman Madi Robinson. The idea, Davis said, was that the team's bottom three pairings were so strong, they had an advantage over other teams with less depth. Moving members of those pairs into the top pairings would have only caused more inconsistency. The plan worked exactly as Davis hoped, especially against BCS; Davis said the team's bottom three pairs were "incredible" in the postseason.
Mooney, which is ranked No. 8 nationally, lost 3-1 to New Smyrna Beach, but Davis said he was blown away by the heart they showed. Mooney was the only team to take a game from the Barracudas in the postseason; New Smyrna repeated as champions with a 3-0 win over Westminster Christian (19-2) in the state title match.
"It shows how close we really are," Davis said. "It was a great season for the girls. To make it that far under the circumstances, it showed how strong the team was across the board. If most teams were put in that situation, there would be a 1% chance they would win any match. To make it to the final four and then take a pairing off basically the top team in the nation, it's unbelievable."
Davis was speaking from vacation in California, a trip he said was much needed following the grind of indoor volleyball, travel volleyball and beach volleyball that has been happening since the beginning of the school year. To Davis, all three shades of the sport have equal value. Davis said he'd like to see beach volleyball continue to grow in popularity over the next few years, and one way to do that is by adding lights to the school's newly-constructed home courts. The project has not yet been approved by the school; Davis said he's still putting together the schematics. But if it is approved, Davis believes it is an addition that could happen relatively quickly, and one that would make a huge difference to the sport's perception in the community.
"It would take this thing to a (NCAA) Division I level complex," Davis said. "To have night games, to have more students out there and involved, to have double-headers. It just adds something. It has a totally different feel. It's super special."
Davis said he was happy with the program's attendance figures in year one of the school's home courts, but because most of the team's games were played in the afternoon, it prevented many of the school's student-athletes from attending, as they were busy practicing their own sports. And after playing in a few matches under the lights in Tallahassee, Davis is more bullish about the possibilities than ever.
He's also excited about the talent that he'll have in 2024. While Carson, DeYoung and Page will be gone, junior Helena Hebda, who Davis called "the best player in the area," will return. Also coming back are the pairings of sophomores Kate Montesano and Riley Greene, who lost just once during the season, and of sophomores Katie Powers and Izzy Russell, who lost just twice during the season.
"We're going to be even better next season," Davis said. "That's something to look forward to."