Members of the Oakton football team huddled at the end of a recent practice and watched as head coach Jason Rowley shaped his hand like the number zero.
“This group,” Rowley said, “has done this much.”
“I think we had a really successful year last year and I think you can go two routes with it. You can either be complacent or you can work really hard to stay on top, and I think that that’s what we’re working toward. I think they really want to stay on top. I feel like they feel they have some unfinished business.”
—Oakton football coach Jason Rowley
The Cougar coach’s words served as a reminder that the approaching 2013 season presents a clean slate. After a 2012 campaign in which Oakton captured the Group AAA Division 6 Northern Region championship and reached the state playoffs, Rowley doesn’t want the Cougars resting on their laurels. Last year’s team entered the postseason as the region’s No. 7 seed after dropping its final four regular season games, but responded by beating the top three seeds—No. 2 Lake Braddock, No. 3 Centreville, No. 1 Westfield—on its way to a region title. It was the Cougars’ first region championship since 2008 and the final Group AAA Division 6 Northern Region football title captured prior to the VHSL’s six-class realignment.
“I think we had a really successful year last year and I think you can go two routes with it,” Rowley said. “You can either be complacent or you can work really hard to stay on top, and I think that that’s what we’re working toward. I think they really want to stay on top. I feel like they feel they have some unfinished business.”
If this year’s group has hopes of similar success, the Cougars will have to compensate for the loss of several key athletes, including quarterback Kyle Downer and left tackle Chris Durant.
Downer was a dual-threat QB who terrorized opposing defenses from Oakton’s read-option offense. He passed for 1,409 yards and 12 touchdowns, and rushed for 1,460 yards and 25 scores during his senior season. Downer received a scholarship to University at Albany and leaves some big shoes to fill.
Taking over at quarterback for Oakton is 5-foot-8 senior Michael Ficarra. He started at linebacker for the Cougars last season before suffering an injury, and last played quarterback as a sophomore on the junior varsity team.
“Mike’s a good decision-maker. He’s a heady player,” Rowley said. “ … I feel like he’s a cerebral player. He’s a smart kid and he has a good understanding of what our expectations are. The expectations are he doesn’t have to be Kyle Downer—he’s not Kyle Downer. Kyle Downer was 6-foot-2, 215 pounds. Mike is 5-foot-8, 175 pounds. He’s a different kid.
“We don’t need him to be Kyle; we need him just to be Mike. We as a coaching staff, it’s our job to put him in place to be successful.”
Ficarra said he’s worked hard in order to help maintain the Cougars’ success.
“It’s definitely a major change going from JV to varsity,” he said, “but over the off-season … I’ve been doing a lot of work to get ready for this year so I can help the team move on and compete like we did last year.”
Durant, listed at 6-foot-4, 286 pounds, was a first-team all-Concorde District selection at left tackle as an Oakton senior, and is now a member of the William & Mary football team. Senior Connor Fagan will move from right guard to left tackle for the Cougars.
Senior running backs Alek Schultz, Bobby Lam, Eric South and Cory Harris are candidates for carries in the Cougar offense. Harris, who started as a sophomore, returns to Oakton after spending his junior season at St. Stephen’s & St. Agnes, a private school in Alexandria. Schultz transferred to Oakton from DeMatha, a private school in Hyattsville, Md.
Senior Bobby Kurtzman could make an impact at receiver.
On defense, Harris, South and senior DJ Smith are impact players in the secondary. Senior Bobby Lam and sophomore Cesar Escajada lead the linebackers, and junior Dave Allely is a returning defensive lineman.
“We’re a lot different team this year,” Allely said. “We lost a lot of guys on offense, but our defense I think will come out strong.”
Oakton will host scrimmages against Hylton (7 p.m., Aug. 16) and West Springfield (7 p.m., Aug. 23) before opening the regular season at home against T.C. Williams at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 30. The Cougars’ other non-conference opponents are: Madison (home, Sept. 6), Annandale (away, Sept. 20), West Potomac (home, Sept. 27) and Woodson (away, Oct. 5).
After realignment, the Cougars’ conference opponents remain the five schools that, along with Oakton, comprised the former Concorde District: Westfield, Centreville, Chantilly, Robinson and Herndon.
With the season opener approaching, Rowley has tried to send a message to his players about maintaining past success.
Will they respond?
“The thing you have to realize is, yeah, we did really well last year, but even last year we made plenty of mistakes, even with all the athletes we had,” Allely said. “We obviously lost the last four games of the regular season and we were able to bounce back, but you can’t really point to that this season, especially losing [key] players … so we’ve got to come out with the new talent we have and do what we can.”
Rowley, in his third season as Oakton head coach, said this group has “a ton of potential.”
What are his expectations?
“Same expectation I always have: to win,” Rowley said. “I expect to win. That’s what our school and community expects. We expect to win here and we expect to be competing for championships.”