SARASOTA - Ask any head football coach what they want most to see in their team each week, and invariably, you're going to get a one-word answer: Balance.
Nobody understands this better than Cardinal Mooney head coach Josh Smithers, whose Cougars rode big-play efforts on offense, defense and special teams to a 28-0 shutout of the Avon Park Red Devils on Friday night at John Heath Field at Austin Smithers Stadium.
Cougar quarterback Reese Vita overcame a week-long illness to pass for 117 yards and a touchdown, and Demardre Patterson rushed for 122 yards and two scores to lead the Mooney attack.
The Cardinal Mooney defense, led by Sean Morris and Alex Sobczak, played an equally big role in the victory, forcing six turnovers and scoring the opening touchdown of the game.
"That's a good football team we played tonight," said Smithers, moments after coaching the Cougars to their second-consecutive 3-0 start.
"We knew Avon Park was going to be a challenge but our defense responded and our special teams played tough. To shut out a battle-tested team like that? It's a great victory for us."
The loss dropped Avon Park to 0-4.
"We turned the ball over five times and had a special teams blunder," said first-year Avon Park coach Wade Jackson. "We played well defensively, but we made too many mistakes.
"I saw a lot of guys come into their own tonight and we're getting better."
Mooney opened the scoring midway through the first quarter, when a swarming Cougar defense led by co-captains Jonah Schopfer and Clarke Horne forced a fumble at the Avon Park 49.
An alert Morris scooped up the loose ball in stride and took off down the left sideline. When the junior stopped running 51 yards later, he had his second defensive touchdown in as many games and gave the Cougars a 7-0 lead.
The Cougar offense got in on the scoring at 7:39 of the second quarter, when Vita fired a bullet to a wide-open Morris for an impressive, 50 yard touchdown - his fourth of the season - to make it 14-0.
The remainder of the half belonged to Sobczak, as the hard-nosed sophomore stopped an Avon Park drive with an interception at the Mooney 7-yard line and later, forced and recovered a fumble at midfield when he bowled into Avon Park punt returner Christian Suarez with a perfectly-timed hit.
"It's all about flying to the ball," said Sobczak, who added another interception later in the game. "Fumbles, interceptions, we work on these things every week, and when you practice as hard as we do, big plays happen."
The turnover was converted to points in less than three minutes, when Patterson took a no-look pitch from Vita and raced around right end to give the Cougars a commanding, 21-0 halftime lead. Patterson, who played what Smithers described as the best game of his career, iced the victory at 10:51 of the fourth quarter with a 17-yard dash to give the Cougars their final margin of victory.
"Nobody likes to lose but we're going to keep working hard to get better and press on," Jackson said. They had a few more kids than we did and we got wore down in the second half."
Mooney will look to remain undefeated when they host Tampa Catholic next week.
Avon Park hosts Lakeland Christian on Friday night for homecoming.
"Lakeland Christian is a spitting image of Cardinal Mooney and we have to come out ready to play," Jackson said. "We'd like nothing better than to get our first win of the season in front of our fans on homecoming."