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Exactly one year ago Tuesday night, Annandale soccer players trudged off their home turf with mud in their boots and defeat in their heads. Few words were exchanged. Ginger steps toward the parking lot were taken, leg cramps setting in as adrenaline petered out. Once again they had fought hard to keep the game close, and once again they had come up empty.

The stage was the same this Tuesday. The mood, however, couldn’t have been more different. Laughs circulated, smiles abounded, all leading up to their coach’s cherished words in the middle of the post-game huddle: “Great win, boys!”

That’s a welcome message for a group that finished with just five total wins in its previous two seasons. Barely halfway through this season, the upstart Atoms have already equaled that total, pounding Centreville 3-0 on Tuesday to go to 5-1-1 on the year.

Annandale’s hot start has reinvigorated a program long stuck in the cellar of one of the state’s toughest conferences. The Atoms are typically an afterthought next to Conference 7 juggernauts like Lake Braddock, Woodson, T.C. Williams and West Springfield, but coach Ryan Mrowka believes his team belongs in the title conversation this year.

“I’ve reminded them that Annandale has not been a respected soccer program for a lot of years,” said Mrowka, who took over the program last season. “We have the talent to do well, and we can’t let up. We have the ability to beat any opponent. Any time they start getting lazy, whether it’s practice or a game, I let them know.”

The team’s biggest win to this point came right before spring break, when the Atoms went up against defending state champion Mount Vernon. Annandale gutted out a gritty 2-1 victory, battling through an extremely physical contest that saw five Atoms go down with injuries.

“It definitely boosted our confidence. It was a rough match and a difficult field to play on,” senior center back Jordan Fox said. “Getting that win I think gave us more of a lift instead of a downer going into spring break. I don’t think we’re even halfway through [the season], so we just need to keep pushing on and know that if we work hard enough we can do it.”

Fox, a James Madison University commit, is one of three McLean Academy players who rejoined Annandale’s team this year after forgoing his junior season in favor of club duties. Fox, midfielder Charlie Montano (Mary Washington) and defender Sam Palencia join a core of seven returning players to make Annandale one of the more veteran teams in the area this season.

Fox’s addition to the back line has been a godsend for a defensive unit decimated by graduation and injury. The team’s one returning defender, Roberto Alcocer, has been sidelined for three weeks now with a hamstring injury. Kyle Peich was converted from forward to defender this year, but his injury has prompted senior Diego Cabrera, normally an attacking center midfielder, to fill in alongside Fox.

The makeshift unit has given up eight goals in seven games.

“Leaving last season I was extremely worried about defense,” Mrowka said. “So far we’ve been very consistent, and we can work the ball out of the back instead of just clearing the ball.”

Even more vital to Annandale’s turnaround is the attack’s newfound ability to score goals. The Atoms have so far tripled last season’s scoring pace, producing 18 goals in seven outings. Their latest outburst came from senior striker Luis Perez, whose hat trick against Centreville gave him a team-high five goals on the season.

“[Perez] has incredible desire,” Mrowka said. “He hates when I take him off the field. He wants to be out there for his team scoring goals. He goes hard to every ball and applies pressure across the field. That’s the way he plays.”

Annandale has impressed many through the season’s midway point, but much work remains. The Atoms meet conference foes Woodson and Lake Braddock next week, two of the most highly touted programs in the area.

“We have a good coach and good chemistry,” Fox said. “If we can get our guys healthy and come together as a unit, we can go as far as we want.”