VERMILLION — Stephen Hillis has emerged as one of the leaders of the South Dakota Coyotes defense this year.
He leads the team with 28 tackles, including 4.5 tackles for loss.
“I’m just doing my job, my one-eleventh, and doing it to the best my ability,” Hillis said. “(I want to be) disciplined, fundamental, and competitive (on the football field).”
Hillis is four years removed from transferring from the Air Force Academy to USD following his Type 1 diabetes diagnosis in 2019. Before his two years at Air Force in 2017-18, Hillis was a standout middle linebacker and offensive guard for coach Chad Cattau at Cedar Catholic High School in Hartington, Nebraska. Hillis holds the school record for tackles for the Trojans and was a three-time All-District and two-time All-State honoree.
Hillis takes regular trips home to see his family and be around the Hartington community and football team at Cedar Catholic.
“I get home often to see my parents,” Hillis said. “Home-cooked meals are the best.”
Hillis and Cattau text back and forth regularly. Cattau told Hillis of his plan to bring 45 of the Trojans’ 51 football players to see Hillis and the Coyotes take on the No. 1 North Dakota State Bison at the DakotaDome Saturday.
“The kids will be excited to see him play,” Cattau said. “They’ll be able to see what a really great work ethic and buying into to doing things the right way can take you in life. Even though we’re from a small school, we can do things, accomplish big things, if we put our goals in the right place.”
Cedar Catholic’s players are interested in how Hillis does for the Coyotes, and Cattau said that Hillis’ performance on Saturdays is usually a topic his team likes to talk about.
“They show up Monday and they talked about the stats that he’s put up, and things like that,” Cattau said. “They see him around town. If they get an opportunity to visit with him, they like to do that. It’s been good. (Stephen) is a great person and a great influence on all the community here.”
Cattau saw something in Hillis even in 2013 when he was lettering in football as a freshman in high school.
“(Stephen) figured out a lot of things through his intellect,” he said. “He was able to use that to his advantage. He was so athletic for his size. He played offensive guard and middle linebacker (in high school) He was such an athletic kid that he was able to use that. His work ethic was second to none, and I think that’s got him to where he is today.”
Additionally, Hillis’ intellect made him a coach on the field in Cattau’s eyes.
“(Stephen) understood what we were trying to do,” he said. “When teams came out (with) formations were on defense, he was able to know a lot of their tendencies pre-snap, what the plan was for them and what they were going to do so. It helped us in that aspect.”
Having that field vision has contributed to the start to the season Hillis has had. Cattau takes a lot of pride in the success Hillis is having.
“I’m really excited for the start he’s had this year,” Cattau said. “He’s putting a lot of hours of work to get to this point, so I’m glad it’s been paying off for him.
“I want to say what a great kid he was and still is today. He comes from a great family. We’re proud of what he’s been able to do up to this point. He represents our school and our town to the highest level each and every day. I’m excited for what he’s going to be able to accomplish during the rest of his career.”
Cattau and the Cedar Catholic players will be watching to see if Hillis and the Coyotes can pull of the upset against the Bison Saturday at 1 p.m.
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