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High school football: Poised McCae Hillstead helps Skyridge overcome slow start in season-opening victory over Fremont

Skyridge’s Zeke Greco (13) celebrates catching a long pass with Jack Hadfield against Fremont in Lehi during the 2021 high school football season opener.
Skyridge’s Zeke Greco (13) celebrates catching a long pass with Jack Hadfield against Fremont in Lehi on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

A year ago in Skyridge’s season-opening victory, sophomore McCae Hillstead made a splash in his first varsity start by throwing four touchdown passes — three in the first quarter — momentum that lasted all year as the Falcons reached the 6A semifinals.

Fast forward to Thursday’s opening high school football game of the 2021 season, and Hillstead had a much more subdued performance in Skyridge’s 31-0 win over Fremont.

With his teammates dropping a few passes early, Hillstead only finished two touchdowns and just over 200 yards, but it was everything else that he did — including everything going all the way back to the first practice of the summer — that stands out to coach Jon Lehman.

“McCae is a guy who believes in his teammates, and trusts the process and is just an awesome kid. So no matter what happens on the field, he’s going to continue to trust his guys and believe in them and he knows his guys will go make plays,” said Lehman.

So what if a teammate dropped a touchdown pass, or another fumbled the ball at the 1-yard line in the first quarter, Hillstead remained positive and upbeat and kept his teammates focused on the next play and the next possession.

That eventually happened as his touchdown pass to Smith Snowden midway through the second quarter gave Skyridge the 14-0 halftime lead, and then his 80-yard TD pass to Teagen Calton midway through the third effectively put the game out of reach at 21-0.

Even when Hillstead wasn’t connecting with his receivers early in the game Lehman thought his junior QB was very smart making the right reads and making on-time throws.

Helping his receivers work through those jitters is a big part of Hillstead’s maturation this year in his second year starting.

“Last year he was a brand new starter so he approached everyday as him trying to go make plays and do his job and handle his responsibilities and let the playmakers around him be the vocal guys and stuff like that. This year he’s the vocal guy. He’s the guy who takes charge, he’s the guy who sets our tempo and energy,” said Lehman.

Hillstead said by nature he’s pretty even-keeled, so his tempo and energy is never too high, but trust in his teammates will always be very high.

“I always trust my guys. If we have a situation where it’s my guy vs. theirs, I’m always going to bet on our guy. I always have faith in them,” he said.

Besides getting the victory on Thursday, Hillstead said the biggest positive was the experience gained by so many new starters in key positions for Skyridge.

“A lot of people dipping their toes in the water as far as starting varsity,” said Hillstead.

That was particularly the case on the defensive side of the ball.

That inexperience didn’t show as Skyridge opened the season with the shutout, including recording a defensive score in the fourth quarter as Colin Sheffield recovered a fumble in the end zone, pushing the lead to 31-0. Skyridge only recorded one shutout all of last season.

“(Fremont has) a lot of guys coming back, and we were playing a lot of new starters on the field defensively, guys who are getting their first starts or first significant varsity time. So just really happy with the way they were locked in with different formations and motions and adjustments and things like that that we haven’t been able to game plan for and we haven’t seen throughout the summer because it was a new opponent with a new offense,” said Lehman.