Vista Ridge looks for improvement on line, production from Jaylen Thomas in 2017

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Photo - A pass intended for Vista Ridge running back Jaylen Thomas is intercepted by Rampart defensive back Joey Williams during the Vista Ridge and Rampart football game at Vista Ridge High School on Friday, November 4, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette
A pass intended for Vista Ridge running back Jaylen Thomas is intercepted by Rampart defensive back Joey Williams during the Vista Ridge and Rampart football game at Vista Ridge High School on Friday, November 4, 2016. Photo by Stacie Scott, The Gazette

Vista Ridge has lost in the first round of the 4A playoffs each of the past four seasons.

Running back and cornerback Jaylen Thomas has been a part of the last two of those teams, primarily playing on defense in 2015 before shifting to a full-time, two-way player in 2016.

Now, in his final offseason, Thomas says the disappointment at the end of past seasons is driving him to achieve more.

"It's really getting to us now that we need to really just, like, step up," Thomas said. "It's not even necessarily what you do on the field in particular. It's what you do in previous games and outside the field and all that stuff."

Of course, Thomas can't do it alone. The offensive line he ran behind last season - to the tune of 836 yards and 11 touchdowns - was made up of a majority of seniors, and last year's starting quarterback Dylan Schindele graduated too.

For that reason, this offseason, coach Jerimi Calip and his staff have been focusing on improving the offensive line as quickly as possible in order to open up holes for Thomas and protect first-year quarterback, Rowan Neal.

"We're trying to make sure that they understand that everything goes through them," Calip said. "We've given them a challenge, and they've accepted it."

Defensively, the Wolves' four leading tacklers from last season all graduated. Thomas, an outstanding cornerback in his own right, will help ease the transition from last season along with Carter Bussone, who Calip refers to as the "quarterback of the defense." Another cornerback, Malique McKay, is headed to the Blue Grey All-American Bowl in Dallas on Jan. 22.

Vista Ridge has one uniting focus, though, according to Thomas: snap its first-round playoff losing streak this season. And Thomas, for one, believes the Wolves are just different enough to achieve that goal.

"I believe that our offensive and defensive lines will definitely step up," Thomas said of the difference between this year and last year's teams. "And our (seniors') leadership skills and how focused we are at practice.

"Our team goal is to make it out of the first round. That's pretty much it so far."