MIDVALE — As ominous black clouds gathered Friday night over Hillcrest's Husky Stadium, the visiting Salem Hills Skyhawks knew things were going to be different.
The two teams faced off in last season’s opening game, in which Salem routed Hillcrest by more than 40 points. But that was the old Hillcrest. Armed with a new coach, a fierce running game and a re-energized fan base, the Huskies were a force to be reckoned with.
The game — played in a torrential downpour and marred by a spate of injuries, dozens of penalties and multiple players hobbling off the field with leg cramps —was a sloppy, slippery, down-to-the-wire contest in which Salem Hills claimed the victory, 22-15.
In exposing some early-season weaknesses for both teams, it also shined the spotlight on their strengths.
For Salem Hills, the play of Cooper Smith emerged as one of bright spots of the night as he did what he does best: pick off passes — which he did twice. In fact, it was his second interception of the night that sealed the win for the Skyhawks.
With time running out deep in the fourth, Taylor Larange and the Huskies were charging hard in a last-ditch effort to tie the game. With momentum and a frenzied home crowd on their side, they were looking to do just that until Smith picked a long pass and squashed their hopes.
Smith was also one of Salem’s biggest offensive weapons, as he notched 128 yards on four receptions and returned a punt for a 48-yard touchdown in the first quarter to put the Skyhawks on the board.
Did Smith experience first-game jitters? “No, I wasn’t nervous about the game; I was just intent on reading the quarterback," Smith said. "Coach told me to cheat over a little bit and it made a big difference.”
It was Hillcrest who struck first when the team scored in the game’s first minute thanks to a dazzling 79-yard kickoff return by the Huskies’ Jaylynn Owens, who was brought down at the goal line. Ian Smith crashed into the end zone on a short run and then converted for two, putting the Huskies up 8-0.
Due to a stingy and sturdy Skyhawk defense, the Huskies didn’t see the end zone again until the fourth quarter, when they picked up another running touchdown by Tanner Thomson after a long sustained drive.
“Our defense won this game, no doubt about it,” said Salem Hills coach Joel Higginson in talking to his team after the game. “Even though it was the sloppiest win I have ever been involved in, it was still a win, and that’s what we came to do. Our season goals are still in tact but we have a lot of work to do on offense.
"We can’t be dropping 4 touchdown passes like we did tonight," Higginson said. "Yes, it was wet and miserable, and, yes, there were way too many penalties — in fact, I have never been in a game with so many penalties called against us — but we still have to make plays.”
Salem Hills quarterback Porter Gustin echoed Higginson’s words after the game when he described the game as “ugly.” The night started off bad for him and the Skyhawks before a single down was played when their star offensive lineman went down with a severe knee injury in warm-ups.
Connor Hunt, at 6-foot-8 and 320 pounds, was expected to be a dominant force on the line for the Skyhawks this season and is being courted by some Pac-12 schools.
“It was a big blow for us when Connor Hunt went down in warm-ups. He’s our third starting lineman to go down in the last week,” said an exhausted, rain-soaked Gustin.
Despite the setback, Gustin still managed to crank out big numbers for the Skyhawk offense in passing for 238 yards on 12 of 23 attempts, including two touchdowns, and a two-point conversion. He also rushed for 114 yards and ran in a two-point conversion.
On defense, Gustin led an impressive Skyhawk defensive effort with 10 tackles, one sack, one fumble recovery and four hurries — two of which led to interceptions by Thomson. Aiding in the effort were big plays by Jaxon Bowden; Neil Davis, who finished with nine tackles; Hayden Albrecht, with six tackles plus a sack, and a key interception by sophomore Kayden Kunz.
“Defense definitely kept us in the game tonight,” Gustin said. And with that, the quarterback and his team boarded the bus, glad to have this game behind them.