Two Sarasota-area football teams alive in the Florida High School Athletic Association postseason. Two games from a state title. Cardinal Mooney High and Booker High are close to realizing their dreams — yet far from the work being done.
The Cougars got to the Class 1S state semifinals by taking care of business. Thanks to upsets in the previous round, Mooney (10-2) played Victory Christian Academy (6-6) in the regional finals and won 42-0. Senior running back Carson Beach ran for 159 yards and three touchdowns while sophomore quarterback Devin Mignery — one of two quarterbacks the team uses — ran for 107 yards. Senior quarterback Michael Valentino, the Cougars' other gunslinger, threw a 31-yard touchdown to junior Chris McCorkle. Meanwhile, the Cougars defense limited Victory Christian to 75 yards of offense.
The Cardinal Mooney victory was expected; the Booker victory was not, except by the Tornadoes themselves. Booker (9-4) entered its Class 2S regional final against Bishop Verot High (11-2) viewed as significant underdogs. Bishop Verot had won five-straight games, including a 50-14 win over Cardinal Mooney, and had a University of Michigan commit at quarterback in junior Carter Smith. But the Tornadoes' top players made plays whenever the team needed them: Booker forced Bishop Verot into seven turnovers. Sophomore defensive lineman Kevontay Hugan was responsible for one of the biggest, returning an interception 50 yards for a touchdown. Hugan also ran for two goal-line touchdowns. The Tornadoes turned those opportunities into 38 points, eventually leading to a 38-32 win.
Both teams will now face their biggest tests thus far in the state semifinals. Here's how each team is trying to keep the playoff magic going for a little longer.
Cardinal Mooney (10-2) vs. North Florida Christian (9-3)
The Cougars have had a fortunate road through the 2023 playoffs. Not only because of the lower-seeded opponents Mooney has faced, but because it has been able to play at home.
The latter advantage will remain in the state semifinals; the former is no more. Cougars Head Coach Jared Clark called North Florida Christian, or NFC, the toughest team it has played in several weeks, in large part because of NFC quarterback JP Pickles. A do-it-all senior committed to Austin Peay State University, Pickles has thrown for 2,606 yards and 26 touchdowns to just six interceptions. He's also run for 1,183 yards on 135 carries (8.8 yards per carry) and 13 touchdowns.
Pickles' dual-threat skills will test the Mooney defense, but Clark believes his team will be up to the challenge.
"We do a lot of different things on defense, and it can get confusing (for opponents)," Clark said. "We've had a full year to work on it now. Our defensive line is starting to pick it up. Our secondary is starting to understand coverages and who they've got. We're starting to play as a unit, and that is difficult for offenses. (Assistant coach) Jon Haskins has done a great job putting guys in a position to be successful."
When the Cougars have the ball, they will split time between Mignery and Valentino being under center. It is something the team has done since Valentino returned from injury on Oct. 27. Valentino had missed the previous four games with "a punctured lung and five broken ribs," according to Clark. While it is unusual for a team like Mooney to use a two-quarterback rotation, Clark said both players have been so effective, and handled the split so well mentally, that he never considered another option. They both deserve to see the field, Clark said, so they will. The team has not missed a beat with either player in the game.
Booker High (9-4) at Cocoa High (12-1)
Scottie Littles is not shying away from the task in front of his football team.
He knows exactly what it will take to beat Cocoa, the No. 21 team in the entire country according to MaxPreps rankings and the reigning Class 2S state champion. There's no trick to it, because Cocoa does everything well, he said. It is unlikely that Booker will be able to repeat its seven-turnover feat from last week, so the Tornadoes will have to find other ways to stifle a dangerous attack.
What that means in practical terms, according to Littles: Booker simply has to have more want-to than the Tigers.
"It's going to be a great task," Littles said. "We're going to have to play our best football game. A lot of praise to (Cocoa) and their coaching staff. They do a great job with scheme and they are disciplined. But we're excited for the challenge. This time of year, there's only four teams left. It comes down to who wants it more. We're going to play as hard and as fast as we can for as long as we can."
It remains to be seen how Booker as a team handles Cocoa's athleticism and attention to detail, but the Tornadoes know they have individual players who can compete. That includes senior Ahmad Hunter, who had 13 carries for 76 yards, as well as senior Josiah Booker, who had 12 carries for 95 yards, including a 28-yard touchdown, against Bishop Verot. Booker, a wide receiver by trade, said he believes he and his teammates can compete with Cocoa — but it will not be easy.
"We can't make any mistakes," Booker said. "If you make a mistake, they're going to take off on you."
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.