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As they trudged off the field after a demoralizing 38-2 defeat against T.C. Williams, Oakton’s players had plenty of negatives to dwell on. Their offense failed to put up a single point in front of the home crowd on opening night. Their defense gave up 31 points in the first half alone. Above all, the Cougars bore little resemblance to the team that stormed through the playoffs last year en route to an improbable region title.

Fast forward three weeks and Oakton still displays few similarities to last year’s group. But that doesn’t bother the upstart kids in red and gold, who have since embraced their identity to the tune of three straight wins heading into Friday’s matchup against W.T. Woodson.

The Cougars followed their Week 1 beatdown with a 42-7 romp over neighborhood rival Madison, then coasted to a 34-15 win against Annandale the week after that. Last Friday’s triumph wasn’t so breezy - West Potomac scored a late touchdown to cut Oakton’s lead to 28-27, then missed the ensuing extra point when the Cougars applied extra pressure on the rush.

So how does an offense go from scoring zero points to averaging 34.6 in the next three games? Part of the answer lies in Oakton’s newfound comfort with the pieces in place. Whereas the team relied heavily on dual-threat quarterback Kyle Downer last season, they now count on former linebacker Michael Ficarra, who has thrown for six touchdown passes and no interceptions since the Week 1 loss. Three of those touchdowns were caught by Jarrett Bacon, a promising sophomore who has emerged as the team’s most reliable threat at wide receiver. Then there’s the running back position, where a number of seniors have stepped in to fill the shoes of Mike Wandey, a power back who carried the load in the backfield for the Cougars last year.

“I think we’re a little bit more dynamic at running back,” Oakton head coach Jason Rowley said. “Cory Harris comes back and provides us with the ability to pound the ball a little bit because he’s a big kid, but he’s also got good hands out of the backfield. Bobby [Lam] has looked really good, and Eric South provides us with the same things Kelly Brooks-Muse provided for us last year, which is speed at that position. And Alek [Schultz] provides a lot of what Mike Wandey could do for us, but I think Alek’s got a little bit better hands than Mike had and is just a little bit more dynamic.”

Schultz, a transfer from Catholic school powerhouse DeMatha, was sidelined with the flu for the T.C. Williams game. He came back the following week to rumble for 238 yards on 20 carries and a touchdown in his debut performance against Madison, then followed that up with two touchdowns against Annandale and three against West Potomac.

Schultz’s value comes not only from his versatility as a runner and pass-catcher, but also from his selfless understanding that he’s just one of many pieces that Oakton needs to complete the puzzle this year. Whereas their success hinged on Downer’s shoulders last year, the Cougars will excel this year if they continue to reap production from a variety of sources. As they learned in Week 1, they also need to remain humble and realize the ‘O’ on their helmets won’t automatically scare opponents into submission.

“I think we’re a lot more determined and focused in practice,” senior defensive back DJ Smith said. “People aren’t really fooling around; we’re all focused towards one goal. We’re really working more as a team rather than people doing their own thing.”

Oakton can’t rest too easy on their recent run. After all, their three wins came against teams with a combined 2-10 record. This Friday they’ll face W.T. Woodson, another squad whose poor record (0-4) could prove misleading. The Cavaliers hung with T.C. Williams last week before falling 21-14, and they lost to a quality Fairfax side by a score of 14-7 in Week 1.

After that, the going really gets tough for the Cougars, who will kick off their five-game Concorde District slate with a road test against Chantilly. It’s the stage that tripped Oakton up last year, when they lost their last four contests to finish the regular season at 6-4. As the ensuing playoff run proved, though, the only thing that really matters is how you’re playing come playoff time.

“There’s no reason to be out here if we’re not looking to win every game,” Rowley said. “I think we’re putting ourselves in a position to where we’re playing our best football towards the end of the year. If we’re fortunate enough to get those wins to put us in a position to get to the playoffs, then anything can happen. Our goal is always to get to the playoffs and then make some things happen.”

McLean nips South Lakes on final play

The Highlanders’ roller coaster season took a turn in their favor last Friday at South Lakes High School. Leading 12-7 with under two minutes to go, South Lakes’ quarterback scampered eight yards and made a gutsy effort to pick up two more so that the Seahawks could put the game away with one more first down. His ambition backfired though when a defender popped the ball out and McLean senior Gabe Sutherland fell on top of it.

McLean executed its two-minute offense and marched right down the field. Danny Hecht completed a pass on fourth-and-10 that ended up just short of the goal line with 4.1 seconds to go. Head coach Dennis Worek, having heard the PA announcer declare fourth and goal prior to that play, thought the game was over. But Hecht and company realized the play had earned them a first down that stopped the clock and allowed for one more play. McLean’s offensive coordinator, out of timeouts, signaled for Hecht to down the ball, but Hecht instead called his own number, quickly plowing ahead on a quarterback sneak that got him into the end zone for the game-winning score.

The victory tasted sweet for a team that fell victim to a go-ahead touchdown with under 10 seconds to play in the previous week’s 28-21 loss to Falls Church. Late mistakes and bad luck handed the Highlanders a 14-11 defeat at the hands of Washington-Lee in Week 1 before they bounced back with a 32-3 win against Marshall the next week.

“It’s been a crazy year,” Worek said. “It’s been exciting, but it’s been crazy.”

Even with all the ups and downs, McLean finds itself at the top of the Liberty District with a 2-0 conference record. They conclude out-of-district play Friday night at Herndon (0-4).