The air of uncertainty lingering around the Oakton boys soccer team is somewhat hard to figure when you consider their current No. 1 area ranking by The Washington Post. The Cougars are 4-0 to start the season, and their chemistry appears to be getting better in every area of the field.
But there are rough edges surrounding an Oakton team that is still far from hitting its full stride this year. Junior midfielder Brian McDaid is easing back into the lineup after sitting out the start of the season with a strained back, while senior defender Sep Zamorodi is trying to shake off the rust caused by a fractured tibia he suffered last fall. Senior Christian Ollen, the team’s orchestrator at the center midfield spot, remains sidelined with the effects of a concussion, although his return looks likely to come next week. Junior forward Cameron Santoro hasn’t played since notching two goals in the team’s season-opening 3-1 win against South County, though he appears ready to bounce back from a pulled hamstring.
The Cougars are also trying to make up for what they lost to graduation last year. Returning only four starters from a squad that finished last season with 11 wins, Oakton must overcome the departures of two leading scorers, two central defenders and its starting goalkeeper, among others. They also lost three key players to the D.C. United Youth Academy.
None of those changes, however, came as a surprise to the Oakton coaching staff. Head coach Todd Spitalny and company organized last year’s roster with the intention of being prepared for a breakout 2013 season. After graduating a litany of studs from their 2011 Concorde District championship team, Oakton coaches anticipated a middle-of-the-pack type of season last spring that would lay the groundwork for greener pastures in 2013.
They were surprised to finish the regular season with just two losses, a success rate that boded well for this year’s campaign.
“We built last year for this year. We had great success last year, so getting into this year we knew our guys were ready,” Spitalny said. “All the guys that played [Tuesday night against McLean], they weren’t starters. They barely played last year because they couldn’t get on the field.”
Spitalny’s side responded to a hard-nosed challenge from McLean on Tuesday with a 1-0 win that surprised everyone on hand. In a microcosm of how their season looks likely to play out - Oakton struggled for much of the first half to establish consistent possession, but their cohesion began to flow in a second half that saw it grab the upper hand with time winding down.
Still, the Cougars weren’t able to create many chances out of their buildups in the attacking third, resulting in a stalemate that looked ready to end in a scoreless tie. But with a mere eight seconds remaining in the second overtime session, junior defender Jimmy Jameson waited for a bouncing ball in the box to come down to his feet and fired a low shot that snuck into the corner of the net.
“It felt good,” Jameson said. “I didn’t know how much time was left, but I knew it was one of the last plays. It felt good to celebrate with my teammates.”
Aside from the injury bug nipping at their side, Oakton’s lack of firepower Tuesday might also have been the result of a week-long layoff during Spring Break last week. Frequent substitutions were made to sustain a lineup experiencing the resulting rust that comes from vacation time.
Spitalny won’t accept lineup shuffling as an excuse for poor play this season, though. After all, his teams have always tinkered with the starting rotation, something shown in a lineup that varied from game to game throughout the last two years.
“The thing with us is, no matter who the 11 is, we got out and play,” Spitalny said. “We’re missing some of our [starting] 11, but the 11 we’ve got, they’ll get it done. The way we do it is as soon as you step on the field, you go after it. If you play well, you stay. If you don’t, you’re off.”
Stepping up to preserve its second straight shutout Tuesday was an Oakton back line anchored by Jameson and freshman Trey Lodge, a newcomer who displays steady composure beyond his years. Patrick Hardtke, who replaces Logan Cropper in goal this season, provided three key saves against the Highlanders. Senior midfielder Patrick Moore, playing a more pressing role in midfield in Ollen’s absence, dished his sixth assist of the season Tuesday, tops in the area.
Thursday night’s matchup against Lee precedes a Monday showdown against Lake Braddock, which beat Yorktown, 5-3, Tuesday to move to 3-0 this year. That will be a battle between the area’s No. 1 and No. 2-ranked teams according to The Washington Post.
While Spitalny insists his team isn’t caught up in the hype of rankings, he realizes the top ranking places a target on his players’ backs.
“The hard part about being number one is that every team when they play you gets up,” Spitalny said. “Their intensity raises, their quality raises, everything. We’ve got to match it.”