Isiah Thomas would have been a senior on this year's football team.
By BRIAN RICHESSON
VINDICATOR SPORTS STAFF
YOUNGSTOWN -- Every day before football practice, Cardinal Mooney High senior offensive tackle Mike Philibin rests his hand on Isiah Thomas' locker.
Thomas would have been a senior running back and linebacker for the Cardinals this season, but he and All-Ohio linebacker Anthony Childs were killed in a March car accident.
"I'm from New Springfield, and a couple of kids out there got killed, but that never really hit close to home," Philibin said. "Until you actually know the kids."
That's why Philibin, a 6-foot-4, 280-pound tackle, takes time to remember his classmate by observing the locker.
"You value life a lot more and you realize anything could happen," Philibin said.
In ways of love, faith and the power of memory, the deaths of Thomas and Childs have united Mooney as it prepares for the 2004 season.
"We were good friends with both of those guys; we were with them every day," senior quarterback Kyle McCarthy said. "The season is obviously for those guys, and we remember them every time we walk on the field."
In addition to the locker reserved for Thomas, the Cardinals will wear the players' numbers on the back of their helmets, fifth-year coach P.J. Fecko said.
"It's probably turned into motivation for our team -- we're out there without one of them," Fecko said. "I think it [the impact] has resurfaced in a positive way. Every step of the way here, something sparks a memory."
Philibin noticed a big difference in practice without Thomas, who would find some way to make players laugh when they weren't exactly having fun.
"Both of them were unreal athletes and they meant so much to this school, not just the football team," Philibin said. "They're going to be greatly missed, but everything we do this year is going to be for them."
The tragedy overshadowed Mooney's 2003 season in which it went 8-2 and qualified for the playoffs. The Cardinals lost to Cleveland Villa Angela-St. Joseph 26-21 in the first round at Stambaugh Stadium.
"It's really made our guys hungry," Fecko said. "Getting bounced in the first round, and in the back-and-forth type of game it was, it has focused our guys and left somewhat of a bad taste in our mouth."
Mooney's 2003 team was known for its tight group of senior leaders, and Fecko has been curious to see how quickly the next senior class bonds.
"The question mark was, were these guys going to be the same? And they're very similar," Fecko said. "They have become a tight group over the summer, and they have stepped up in that leadership role."
Leading that charge will be seniors Jon Italiano (OL/DL), Eric Mariotti (RB/LB), Michael Rich (FB/LB), McCarthy and Philibin.
"Last year's seniors brought winning back to Mooney," McCarthy said. "This year we're trying to build off that experience, and hopefully we can take it farther than the first round."
The 6-foot, 185-pound McCarthy, who started last season at receiver and defensive back, takes over the starting quarterback position previously held by Ron Stoops.
"He has a good arm and he's a tremendous runner, so he makes it difficult to defend," Fecko said of his new signal caller. "He's not one-dimensional."
Mooney took its biggest hit on defense, where it returns experience, but only three starters.
Still, the Cardinals hope to rely on past experience and the foundation put in place by Fecko and his staff to duplicate last season's playoff run.
"There's been a lot of leadership, a lot of kids taking charge and refusing to lose," Philibin said. "That's the main thing."