SARASOTA — No one is kicking these beach volleyball players from Cardinal Mooney Catholic High School in the face.
As eight opponents discovered, each of the 10 starting Cougar players is, in their own way, a sandman, helping to put their foes to sleep.
Indeed, life has been a beach so far for the Cougar Beach Volleyball Team. Every game, it’s as if Chad Davis’ team laid down a blanket measuring 52 feet by 6 inches x 26 feet by 3 inches (the dimensions of a court), wedged into a few umbrellas, pushed back and relaxed.
If decisive were the victories, a rocking chair should replace the beach variety. Eight matches, eight wins, five whitewashed 5-0. Mooney scored a total of 37 points while allowing only three.
It’s more than sand: these Cougars are the queens of their court.
“You’re hopeful it’s going to be okay,” said Davis, who took over the program from Chad Sutton ahead of the 2020-21 season. “I wouldn’t say we were caught off guard by the success, but it’s been a dominant run to start the year. But April is going to be an incredible challenge.
While this is the first year that the Florida High School Athletic Association (FHSAA) has offered beach volleyball, the Sunshine State Athletic Conference (SSAC) is now in its third season. Also playing there, the Cougars lost last season in the state semifinals to eventual state champion Westminster Christian Academy.
The Cougars’ experience playing in the SSAC benefited them in their first year in the FHSAA. “No doubt,” Davis said. “For sure. Being able to play in both organizations is hugely beneficial.
Last season, Mooney’s indoor team finished 20-8, losing to Bishop McLaughlin Catholic in the region’s quarterfinals. The Cougar team is the same, inside or out, but there’s no guarantee that the success of one will be duplicated of the other.
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One involves six players, each with a specific responsibility. The other, just two, which means versatile skills are a must.
“Totally different,” said Davis, who played men’s volleyball at Osceola High before accepting a scholarship to Eckerd College, where he played on the club team. “You have to have skills in all areas outside, where inside you can just have a specialty to play net, or be a defender, where in the sand you have to be able to execute all skills.
“As well as having exceptional reading ability to know where the kids are going to hit. You have to be able to execute all the skills, so that’s what makes it so fun to watch and train.”
Sophomore Helena Hebda said the two biggest differences between playing indoors and outdoors are the simple addition of Mother Nature. “You definitely have to learn how to deal with the heat and also the wind,” she said. “The wind is the biggest difference because it moves the ball around, so that’s huge.”
“Indoors, it’s so much easier to land a ball straight than on the beach,” said junior Madeline Carson. “It’s about shooting and just getting the ball in the field. Outdoors, you kind of have to be a lot more relaxed and easy-going. You can’t be as tense as the inside tends to be.
Calling the Cougar team “a good family,” Carson credits this closeness for much of its success. “We are almost like sisters to each other. So because we’re already so close, I think that really helps bond for the beach, so each of our pairs are really strong together.
And that, according to Davis, is what separates his team from many others. From his No. 1 duo to his No. 5, stalling is not a problem. “Our strength is that all of our pairs, 1-5, are incredibly balanced, so it’s going to take someone very special, and I’m sure there are teams out there that are going to give us a full run. for our money, but you just hope our kids win.
“A lot of schools have four really good players, the top two pairs are pretty strong, then there’s a dramatic drop from 3 to 5. All of our pairs are exceptionally strong. No pair we review is weak by any means. We expect them all to win. When they’re on, and they’re really on, the core is extremely hard to beat.
The 10 Cougars who make up their five two-man squads – Jordyn Byrd, Hebda, Carson, Gracie Page, Sawyer DeYoung, Izzy Russell, Kate Montesanto, Riley Greene, Lauren Burd and Katherine Moore – must all display communication and teamwork. team needed in a sport. where in-game coaching, Davis said, is limited. “Limited on the amount of instructions you can give. They have to figure out a lot of it on their own, which is pretty good for them.
Between points, the two players on a Cougar team can discuss who will guard against cut (sharp angle) or highline shots, who has the middle zone on a serve, and which opponent to attack.
“After a few points,” Hebda said, “you can basically tell who the weakest (player) is and who you should attack.”
Besides the FHSAA and SSAC, the Cougars also play on a club team, the Sarasota Juniors. It’s a ton of volleyball.
“The amount of dedication and time is hugely appreciated,” Davis said, “and it’s something that we try to emphasize to them how proud we are of them for the amount of work and time that they devote to it.”
It won’t take less time. The Cougars will compete in the SSAC Qualifying Tournament on April 20, then the FHSAA District Tournament on April 26-27, followed by the SSAC State Championship on April 29-30.
If the Cougars are one of the state’s 32 district champions, they will enter a playoff on May 2. The 16 winners will then play May 6-7 for the state title in Tallahassee. And like the Indiana State Basketball Tournament, all schools in the state, regardless of class, will compete against each other.
Mooney’s road to that end gets considerably tougher with a game Thursday at Calvary Christian in Clearwater, last year’s Class 3A state champion.
“If we get to (the title game) we’re very confident in our chances,” Davis said, “but it’s going to be very difficult to get there.”
The possibility of winning an SSCA and FHSAA state title in the same season did not escape him.
“We can compete for two of them,” he said. “That’s what’s exciting. It will be pretty amazing to be able to get one, but if everything falls into place and you can get two, it would just be an amazing achievement for our girls.
Worthy of a party day on a real beach.