This is the first installment in a daily series leading up to the kickoff of the 2013 high school football season. Our reporters will be out at local practices checking in with contenders, dark horses and rebuilding teams alike as they gear up for the fall. This is Camp Countdown.
As Oakton Coach Jason Rowley addressed his players Monday at the close of their first preseason practice, his words almost focused as much on food as they did football.
Drink plenty of water and eat sodium-filled foods to retain those fluids, Rowley told the group. Similar instructions were likely given all over Fairfax County as many schools commenced preseason practice this week, but for an Oakton squad boasting plenty of new faces, the words hold a bit more weight.
“The key for us this season is we’ve got to stay healthy,” Rowley said. “I know a lot of coaches say that but with us replacing a handful of players from last year, we need to stay healthy so we can meet the championship standard that’s at Oakton.”
The Cougars lost almost 97 percent of last year’s offense to graduation, including dual-threat quarterback Kyle Downer and his 2,869 total yards. He, along with 1,000-yard rusher Mike Wandey and left tackle Chris Durant, were vital in Oakton shaking off a four-game losing streak and making a surprise run to the Virginia AAA Northern Region Division 6 crown.
Rowley believes he has several capable replacements, starting at quarterback with senior Michael Ficarra. What the 5-foot-8 quarterback lacks in height, he makes for up with his mind, priding himself on studying film and making wise decisions in the pocket.
Ficarra excelled under center as a sophomore on the JV squad before moving to linebacker on varsity last season. After playing the first three games, Ficarra suffered a knee injury that required minor surgery and sputtered his production during the latter part of the season. Now, with the injury behind him and the starting job in hand, Ficarra is poised to lead the Cougar offense.
“My one goal is to do whatever it takes to bring the team back to the success we had last year,” Ficarra said. “As the season goes on, I’m looking to make sure everything falls in place with our execution and that all of the hard work is paying off.”
Rowley said that Ficarra has the ability to make plays with his legs, which should fit well in the Cougars’ offensive philosophy of spreading the ball and doing damage on the ground. Along with Ficarra, Oakton possess a backfield playmaker in Alek Schultz, who transferred from DeMatha. The 5-foot-10, 215-pounder has the size and speed to open up the field.
“Our offense is geared to spread the ball around, so there could be a different player stepping up every week,” Rowley said. “We have a lot of depth in our backfield and while we’ll need a few guys to step up on the offensive line, I’m not worried about our skill positions on offense.”
Defensively, the Cougars return several starters, including senior defensive back Eric South and junior lineman David Allely. This unit proved especially impressive during Oakton’s run to the region title last year, holding its three opponents to 14 points per game.
Joining the defense is a budding prospect in sophomore linebacker Cesar Escajeda. The six-foot, 215-pounder is an aggressive player who can rack up tackles in bunches.
Like last season, Oakton is likely to face its stiffest competition during the latter part of the season, with Chantilly, Centreville and Westfield on the slate. And like last season, Rowley hopes that his team will remain healthy and consistent enough to find postseason success.
“At the beginning of last season, nobody knew who Kyle Downer was, but by the end of the year, they knew his name and he and our other seniors led us to the title,” Rowley said. “We’ve got some great additions to the team this year and guys who are ready to step up in the same way, so we’re excited for the season.”
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