If you’ve followed the Vista Ridge football team this season, you know all about Jaylen Thomas and his athleticism.
But last week, in Round 1 of the 4A state playoffs, we were all introduced to the quarterback stylings of junior Rowan Neal, who threw for 239 yards and had 102 yards on the ground in one of the biggest first-round upsets in the state.
Neal led his No. 14 Wolves to a 39-34 victory over No. 3 Fruita Monument, which had built up confidence throughout the state as a team that could dethrone reigning champions Pine Creek.
Unfortunately for Neal and the Wolves, a 35-14 defeat by the hands of Pueblo South ended their season on Saturday afternoon in the quarterfinals.
But in the seven weeks leading up to Neal’s postseason debut, he was benched. He had 560 passing yards through the first three weeks of the season, then fizzled to just 88 in the remaining seven weeks, averaging just five passes per game.
“It’s just one of those things where I think he was just trying to make plays and not letting the game come to him, he had happy feet, but as you can tell last week he settled in,” Vista Ridge coach Jerimi Calip said. “He learned to take better care of the football. He stepped up and got some playoff reps and now he knows what it feels like and what he needs to do. He’s an intelligent kid and I think he’ll learn from what happened in this game (gains Pueblo South) and come back ready to go.”
Thomas took over under center and ran - literally - to a 3-2 record, outscoring opponents 180-62 in the second half of the season. He had 647 passing yards, 928 rushing and 20 touchdowns as the Wolves put themselves in position for a postseason berth.
“This season was definitely a learning process,” Neal said. “Jaylen came in and did his thing when I was out, and then coach called my number because he needed me in the playoffs and I had to step up, be a man, make plays and with the game for my teammates.”
Neal is a Jenkins Elite quarterback, and is training with a staff of former NFL players to improve his game and work to get recruited by a top college. And with that comes commitment to his position and an investment in his future, which bodes well for the future of Vista ridge football.
Neal is one of 20 juniors who will return to the gridiron next year in hopes to step up to replace the 2018 seniors.
For Neal, summer is key now that the 2017 campaign is done.
“I just want to get better and focus on the summer right now,” Neal said. “It’s my senior season and I have to focus on the summer. That’s when you get better and that’s where you separate yourself from your competition. I want to build as a team, and keep on getting better, and better and better.”
A 154.0 quarterback rating in an upset versus one of the best teams in the state is certainly a good place to start.