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A 30-point football loss will sting, but when it ends a team’s season, it’s even worse. The bitterness lingers for months: through winter conditioning when players are strapping themselves into weight racks hoping to break personal bests and through a scorching summer when another wind sprint seems impossible.

But by the time the new season kicks off, a good coach will have used the embers left over from the old season to stoke a full-fledged fire, and that’s what seems to have happened for Jason Rowley and this year’s Oakton Cougars.

With season-opening wins against cross-town rival Madison (35-13 on Aug. 31) and the VHSL’s Class AAA Division 5 runner-up South County last Friday, the Cougars look to open their home slate tonight against W.T. Woodson in a full-on frenzy, stemming from last year’s 50-21 loss to Lake Braddock in the playoffs.

“We got embarrassed by [them] last year and we took that feeling and we remembered it,” said Kyle Downer, Oakton’s quarterback who passed for three touchdowns and ran for another in the 28-21 win at South County. “We never want to feel that way again. We had home field and we just feel like we let our seniors down.”

Downer did his best to be sure the Cougars didn’t feel the sting of a loss in Friday’s contest against the Stallions, who were playing their first home game since a state semifinal win over Hanover on Dec. 3. The senior signal caller had a hand in all four touchdowns and put up over 150 yards of offense.

The Cougars got down early when South County quarterback David Symmes capped an eight-play drive with a 23-yard touchdown run, but responded later in the opening quarter when Downer found Andy Boone with a 29-yard strike down the right side.

Oakton built a 14-7 lead just 90 seconds before halftime, when Downer hit Kelly Brooks-Muse with a 37-yard pass down the left sideline. The play was set up by a short punt from South County and a pass-interference penalty that gave Oakton a first down.

Downer, who was the starting tight end in 2011 and took just a few snaps at quarterback last year as Tuck Masker’s understudy, grew more comfortable behind center as the game progressed, even picking up the slack for burly running back Mike Wandey, who was knocked out for a few plays after fumbling late in the third quarter.

“It’s a great feeling knowing you can just go out and play your football game,” said Downer, who did not throw an interception. “You’re not being pressed to make big plays, you can just move the ball down the field, make all the right reads, and you can really play to your full potential.”

The key possession for Oakton’s offense came after the defense forced South County to punt after Wandey’s turnover. Trailing 21-14 after a pair of Symmes touchdown runs, Boone started the drive with 13 yards on a sweep left to put the Cougars on the Stallions’ 40 with 11:30 to play. The next snap produced a 40-yard touchdown to Brooks-Muse, his second score of the game. The speedy slot receiver slipped behind the linebackers and caught Downer’s short pass, then burst through the South County defense, gaining 35 yards after the catch.

“We’ll respond fine with adversity,” said Brooks-Muse. “With Mike down, I had to step up, had to be a leader. I had to put my points on the board. We have so much talent on this offense.”

The Oakton defense once again proved up to the challenge. After South County started the next possession at its own one-yard line after botching the kickoff return, the Cougars forced a punt from the 24 and started what proved to be the game-winning drive from the Stallion 46. Five plays later, Downer locked up the Cougars’ second win of the season with a 30-yard keeper up the middle.

The Oakton defense, without the services of injured senior defensive lineman Joe Allely, stifled South County’s final chance. The Stallions had first-and-goal inside the 10, but three plays netted just two yards before junior defensive back Eric South knocked away the final pass of the game at the goal line.

The significance of the win wasn’t lost on Downer.

“This game proves we’ve made improvements over last year,” he said. “We’re tough enough to come out here and win a tight game in a hostile environment when we don’t have a lot of fans.”

Westfield, Chantilly and Centreville are the annual teams to beat in the Concorde District, and Oakton believes the Stallions to be the sort of test that awaits them beginning with an Oct. 12 home game against Chantilly.

“The district goes through [those schools],” said Rowley, who’s in his second year guiding the Cougars after a long tenure as an assistant coach. “We’re on the outside battling to climb up and compete with them. {South County] is playing like a Concorde district team; that’s why I like playing them.”