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Oakton’s outdoor practice facilities bustled with exuberance on Tuesday afternoon, its athletes relishing the chance to break free from winter’s cages. No one was happier to greet the warm weather than the school’s varsity boys soccer team, which was enjoying just its third outdoor practice of the year, its first on the new stadium turf field.

Yet the soccer team was surrounded by more than mild temperatures. Even as they laughed and joked amid the relaxed atmosphere that comes with preseason practices, pressure bore down on them from all sides.

No matter what transpires in the coming weeks, that pressure will stick with the Cougars until the final whistle sounds in mid-June. The defending region champions carry the weight of enormous expectations this year, their top-dog status legitimized by the return of 17 players from a squad that finished 18-1-2 last season. Oakton has never won a state championship in boys soccer, but everyone seems to believe that fact won’t hold up much longer.

Locals aren’t the only ones taking notice of the Cougars’ potential. Sheldon Shealer, the former high school soccer reporter for ESPN, has Oakton at No. 1 in his FAB 50 national rankings.

Oakton coach Todd Spitalny is flattered by the recognition, but he’s not reading into it.

“We’re overrated,” Spitalny said. “We haven’t earned anything yet. That ranking is based on what we did last year and the year before that, and we’ve all talked about that as a program. This group has yet to prove anything.”

What happened last year still makes them cringe. The Cougars tore through an undefeated regular season on their way to district and regional championships, but a 1-0 semifinal defeat at the hands of Cosby High cut their state title aspirations short.

Even with a school-record win total and two trophies in the bag, Spitalny’s boys could only look back on what might have been.

“We looked at last year as a failure. We knew where we should have been,” Spitalny said. “Do we take enjoyment out of last year? Absolutely. But to all of us, we failed. Everybody on this team will tell you that the best team on the field last year was us.”

Given the talent washing over their experienced lineup, the Cougars are likely to be the best team on the field this year as well. Armand Jeffris and Ben Cisse are back to headline one of the most proven attacking fleets in the area, while sophomore defender Trey Lodge returns to provide stability to the team’s back line. Behind Lodge, Oakton’s outrageous depth shines in three seniors who could start at the goalkeeper position for just about anyone. Even Raphael Ortiz, currently the team’s third-stringer, is being recruited by VCU.

Despite the graduation of Christian Ollen and Patrick Moore, Oakton’s greatest strength might once again be its highly skilled midfield. This year they’ve welcomed back Noah Pilato, a Penn State commit who played for the team his sophomore year but decided to focus on his duties with D.C. United Youth Academy last spring. With his college commitment already in place, Pilato opted to quit the Academy last month so that he could have some fun with his high school team in his senior year.

Fellow seniors Brian McDaid and Jimmy Jameson are back to add more experience to the midfield. Jameson anchored the Cougars’ back line last season, but he could see more time at his more natural position of center midfielder this season depending on the team’s injury situation.

“Jimmy Jameson and also Brian McDaid, we’ve been playing together for years so we have that chemistry already built,” Pilato said. “I think that will come into play, and hopefully we’ll live up to the hype.”

Jameson might have to step aside for the arrival of Jason Ferrufino, a gifted freshman capable of taking over Oakton’s center mid spot right away. Spitalny says Ferrufino, a Fairfax Police Youth Club product, has the potential to be the best player to ever come through Oakton should he remain at the school.

“He’s got great vision,” Spitalny said. “The ball moves very calmly through him. He’s not a true freshman where he gets panicked and he gets physically bumped. He’s left-footed, and he’s got a hell of a strike as a freshman. And he combines well. He reads the game very, very well.”

With so many quality midfielders on the pitch, Oakton’s possession-oriented style won’t go away anytime soon, especially with the smooth turf surface at their disposal this season. A capable attacking fleet will encourage them to possess the ball with purpose rather than simply settle for keep-away.

“We’re a possession-based team because we’re all technically gifted,” Jameson said. “If we can keep it we can also go forward and score goals.”

Spitalny cautions that his team might get off to a slow start with all the injuries nagging the roster. Five of his 17 returners could miss the first few weeks, including Cameron Santoro and Ryan Frantz.

He also points out that the rest of the region isn’t exactly a cakewalk. Spitalny believes Lake Braddock is currently the better team, an opinion supported by the Bruins’ No. 5 ranking in Shealer’s FAB 50. The defending Patriot District champions will seek revenge from last year’s regional semifinal defeat to the Cougars when the two teams meet at Oakton on April 22.

Oakton will fight hard in that one, but its players hope to save their best stuff for the season’s later stages. Anything to avoid the fate that befell them last June.

“We definitely don’t want to feel that again,” Jameson said. “We’ll do our best not to let it happen.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com