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Cardinal Mooney boys lacrosse shows its swagger

It might take some late-game heroics, but the Cougars (7-3) always believe in their ability to pull out the win.

Cardinal Mooney senior Carter Westendorf high fives senior Gio Zanoni after a Zanoni goal against IMG Academy. The Cougars would win 11-10 in overtime.
Cardinal Mooney senior Carter Westendorf high fives senior Gio Zanoni after a Zanoni goal against IMG Academy. The Cougars would win 11-10 in overtime.
Photo by Ryan Kohn
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Call the Cardinal Mooney High boys lacrosse team the cardiac cats. 

The Cougars (7-3) are winning games, and they play with the swagger that successful teams tend to have. But their two latest wins have caused their coaches, and fans, some stressful moments late in games. 

First, Cardinal Mooney secured an 11-10 road win over Tampa Jesuit (5-3) in overtime on March 15. The win was the program's second ever over the Tigers, perennially a state title contender in the sport. Then, on March 19, Mooney returned home for another 11-10 overtime win, this time over IMG Academy Varsity. It was Mooney's first-ever win over an IMG team. 

The Cougars gained several two-goal leads throughout the game but allowed IMG to battle back. The Ascenders even took a 10-9 lead with 1:07 remaining before Mooney senior Gio Zanoni tied the game at 10 with 28.9 seconds remaining. In overtime, junior defenseman Jake Morales sent the Mooney crowd home happy with an around-the-back shot to the top left corner of the IMG net. The shot was only that fancy out of necessity, Morales said, but he was thrilled to pull it off. 

"I saw an open lane in the middle and I sprinted (there) with my stick up," Morales said. "I was not really thinking. It wasn't how I usually shoot. It just felt like the best option, and it worked." 

Cardinal Mooney High junior Jake Morales (16) watches his game-winning goal against IMG Academy hit the back of the net. The Cougars won 11-10 in overtime. It was the team's second-straight overtime win.
Photo by Ryan Kohn

Cardinal Mooney Head Coach Derek Wagner called the game "an ugly win" with a pretty finish. Wagner said he was happy the team got the victory, but in the future, the team needs to be sharper against opponents the quality of Jesuit and IMG Academy. The game should not have gone to overtime, Wagner said; if the Cougars had brought their best effort, it would not have required such heart-stopping heroics, as thrilling as the goals from Zanoni and Morales were. 

It's the type of message a coach who believes in his team sends: good, but not good enough. Wagner, who has coached the program for 11 seasons, said this year's team compares favorably to most of the Mooney teams he has coached in terms of pure talent. The results back him up: Not only does the team have wins over Jesuit and IMG Academy, but two of the team's three losses were by one goal — and came to strong teams in Plant High (9-0) and the Community School of Naples (6-4). The team's other loss was a 14-4 defeat at the hands of Lake Mary High (10-1), the defending Florida High School Athletic Association state champion and one of the top programs in the country. 

In order to reach its potential and compete with teams of Lake Mary's ilk, Wagner said, the team needs to remember the basics. 

"If we're playing our best game, that's fast-paced, highly skilled and solid in formation, offensively and defensively," Wagner said. "But it is also when we do the fundamentals. That's the big thing with these kids, passing and catching. You think it's so simple, but if you can pass and catch, it allows your skill to show itself. When we can move the ball, we can hang with some pretty good teams." 

The Cougars play team-oriented lacrosse, but their stars have shined bright when it matters. Zanoni has 14 goals and 13 assists as of March 19, while junior Jamison McCusker has 16 goals and 11 assists. On defense, Wagner said, Morales has been one of the team's best players since the beginning of the season and gets the assignment of shutting down the opposition's biggest scoring threat. 

Morales, who serves as a team captain, said this year's locker room is more unified than it has been in years past. Morales said he and his fellow captains have encouraged everyone on the roster to be 100% bought in to the team at all times. Against good teams, games get intense, Morales said, and the Cougars have to have the intensity to match it. That all-in mentality has led to confidence, and that confidence is why the team never showed nerves against IMG Academy, even when the Ascenders had the upper hand late. 

The Cougars will need to remain sharp. The team has five games left before district playoffs begin April 5, the next being a road game against Benjamin High (10-1) on March 22 — followed immediately by a road contest with Oxbridge Academy (8-3) on March 23. While Wagner wants to see more from his team, the Cougars continue to win as they develop — and have proven adept at winning, even when not at their best, even when the odds appear against them. 

It might give their coaches a scare, but the cardiac cats feel comfortable when the pressure is on.

"We're scrappers," Wagner said. "Through ups and downs, we'll find a way to grind it out." 



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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