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December 1, 2009

Can Mooney be stopped?

Back in August, nearly every media outlet, high school football pundit, and knowledgeable fan across the state of Ohio knew Youngstown Cardinal Mooney was going to be good.

But this good?

It's not a shock that the Cardinals (14-0) will be playing for the Division III state championship Saturday morning at Massillon's Paul Brown Tiger Stadium. But the path of destruction they've left behind over the past four months certainly is.

Mooney, despite moving up from Division IV due to OHSAA divisional realignment, has decimated its opposition that has included several solid Division I opponents and a handful of playoff qualifiers.

The latest casualty was tradition-rich and ultra-talented Steubenville, who suffered one of their worst defeats this decade at the hands of the Cardinals. The Big Red had no answer for the vaunted Mooney running game in falling 45-7. Mooney registered a stunning 456 rushing yards in the victory.

The Mooney option attack is dangerous all-around and is chocked full of college prospects. It all starts with quarterback Alex Zordich, a 6-foot-3, 195-pounder who boasts an offer from Toledo. Another weapon is Ray Vinopal, who broke a 30-yard touchdown run last weekend vs. Steubenville. Vinopal has two MAC offers and has been recently courted by Michigan.

But the weapon that fires the most bullets is star tailback Braylon Heard. The senior West Virginia recruit has been nothing short of spectacular this season, rushing for 1,723 yards and 22 touchdowns despite routinely getting only around 10-15 carries per game. He made the most of his touches against Steubenville, rushing for 298 yards and scoring on runs of 43, 65, and 94 yards. Heard will likely see his name on the First Team All-Ohio listing when it is released later this week and is a strong contender for the coveted Mr. Football award.

You can't have a successful running game without a talented offensive line. Mooney's is one of the best (and biggest) in the state, regardless of division. The massive Cardinals' front five is anchored by 6-foot-7, 290-pound Eric Franklin and 6-foot-3, 290-pound Zach Larson. As a unit, Mooney's line averages over 265 pounds, size relatively unheard of at the Division III level.

As good as the offense has been, the defense has been equally stellar, particularly in the playoffs. Through the first three games of the postseason, the Mooney D forced a whopping 13 turnovers. In the state semifinal, they held a normally dangerous Steubenville offense to just 110 total yards and limited quarterback Dwight Macon to only 85 yards through the air.

One more obstacle remains for Mooney, who is making their fifth state championship game appearance in six years. The team standing in their way is Columbus St. Francis DeSales (11-3). The Stallions are no stranger to Mooney, in fact the two squared off earlier in the year with the Cardinals hanging on for a 21-14 victory after jumping out to a two-touchdown lead in the first half.

Can DeSales return the favor and play spoiler? They can hang their hat on their defense, knowing already they held Mooney to their lowest offensive output of the season during their regular season tussle. And while Mooney enters as the undoubted favorite, they can't take anything for granted. Back in 2007, a talent-laden and heavily-favored Mooney squad entered the state title game unbeaten yet succumbed to the scrappy play down the stretch by a Coldwater team that gave up plenty of size and speed.

Mooney head coach P.J. Fecko is likely preaching to his troops this week not to take anything for granted and probably has the 2007 title game as exhibit #1. DeSales will be a game opponent, but a solid effort by Mooney on Saturday will likely result in the seventh state title for the Cardinals.


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