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For Cardinal Mooney boys basketball, there are no small roles

The Cougars complement their high-level scorers with gritty competitors unafraid to mix it up under the hoop.

The Cardinal Mooney boys basketball teams wears "Accountability" shirts at practice.
The Cardinal Mooney boys basketball teams wears "Accountability" shirts at practice.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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In the Cardinal Mooney High boys basketball program, everyone knows his role. 

For some players, like seniors Connor Heald (18.9 points per game) and Kevin O'Donoghue (13.5 points per game), that role is to score. For senior Carter Jula, the role is to be active around the rim — he averages 5.2 rebounds per game, the most on the team. For others, like senior George Leibold and sophomore Devin Mignery, the role is to out-tough and out-work whomever the opposition throws at them. 

It was a process to find those roles. Coming off a 17-10 season in 2022-2023, the Cougars began this season 4-0 before hitting a down stretch in December, losing six of 10 games. But since returning from its holiday break, Mooney has played like it found a second wind. The Cougars have gone 5-1 in January, the lone loss a 52-47 road loss to the BJ Ivey-helmed Sarasota High Sailors (17-2). 

Cardinal Mooney senior Connor Heald works with Head Coach Vince Cherry during practice. Heald averages 18.9 points per game.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

The difference, the Cougars believe, is sticking to their roles and learning what it takes to be a team. If someone steps outside of their role, it will be addressed, either Head Coach Vince Cherry or by themselves. It is an attribute that they wear, literally: The backs of the team's practice jerseys read "Accountability," with the "ability" section of the word highlighted. 

"There's a lot that goes into (winning)," Cherry said. "You have to be at practice every day. You have to work hard at practice. You have to be a good teammate. We have been on a one-week approach. We're trying to win each week and to be better every day."

For players like Heald, a 6-foot-1 long-range threat, and O'Donoghue, a 6-foot-5 physical post player, filling up the basket has been a part of their personal basketball perspective for a long time; when a shot needs to go in, they are the ones their team turns to for a play. This season, the two said, they don't care which one scores more, or gets the final shot in a close game. They just want to end their high school careers with a trip to Lakeland in the Final Four. And while both players are happy with how the team has turned around this month, there is more the Cougars can do in their eyes. 

"We still need to put together a full game, start to finish," O'Donoghue said. "We need to be consistent. We can't let the other team go on runs."

Heald agreed, adding that the Cougars should play every game like it is their last game. 

Eventually, for the team's seniors, it will be, whether the season ends in Lakeland or sooner than they would like. To get there, the Cougars will need more than Heald and O'Donoghue's scoring touches. That is where roles come into play, and is partly why Cherry believes the team struggled in December: It was not yet complete.

While the Cougars were starting their season on the hardwood, the school's football team was putting the finishing touches on a state championship season, the program's first since 1972. It was an accomplishment no one on the team would trade for anything, but it also meant that some of the team's multi-sport athletes, like senior George Leibold and sophomore Devin Mignery, were delayed in joining the basketball team. Once they were able to join, it took a few games for the team to adjust — but in Cherry's mind, late is much better than never when considering the dimensions these players add to the basketball team.

Cardinal Mooney High boys basketball Head Coach Vince Cherry.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

"They're tough," Cherry said. "They are not going to be out-worked by anybody. They're not the tallest guys, but they do all the dirty work that we need people to do."

Or, in the words of Heald: "They're dogs." 

It's a compliment. Mix that attitude with players like Jula, who already provides strong rebounding and is third on the team in scoring (6.0 points per game), plus senior Sean Scurry, who averages 5.3 assists per game, and the Cougars believe they have a strong core and identity. 

Now that the roles of the team have been settled, the Cougars have formed tight communication on and off the court. O'Donoghue said the team golfs together often. There's debate about who the best golfer is, but the competition is healthy, he said. (Heald offered a rebuttal, claiming he is the best.) It is the little things like golfing rivalries that the Cougars hope will give them an edge. 

As of Jan. 23, the team has four regular season game remaining: A Jan. 25 home game against Braden River High (13-6); a Jan. 26 home game against Seffner Christian (11-10); then two road games, one against Mitchell High (10-11) on Jan. 30 and a rematch with Sarasota High on Feb. 2. 

The Cougars hope they left their season lows behind in December, with January being the turnaround and February being the next step. The road to Lakeland is filled with unknowns, but Cardinal Mooney will be prepared for the journey. 



Ryan Kohn

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.

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