Ogden

After all of his study and analysis of the past three months, Weber State coach Jay Hill nailed the scouting report.

Working in his Stewart Stadium office one morning this week, he knew exactly what to expect.

"She'll walk in here today," he predicted, "with the same sweet smile and that look of determination."

Sara Hill's entrance? Just as advertised, with only her wool hat suggesting any effects of the cancer treatment she has undergone since August.

"I'm so grateful for her attitude and her toughness," Jay Hill said, moments before his wife arrived.

And she's thankful for a Wildcat football team will play at least one more game after making the FCS national playoffs, giving her a healthy distraction and extending a season she described as "pure excitement."

That's part of the summary of an eventful three months in the life of a coaching family with four children of ages 5 to 16. This week's calendar includes a chemotherapy session, Thanksgiving Day and the biggest game of Jay Hill's career — since the 2009 Sugar Bowl as a Utah assistant coach, anyway.

Weber State's road game game vs. the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga might be more important, considering what it means to a program he has built from the depths of an 0-9 start two years ago to a 7-4 record this season, with a third-place finish in the 13-team Big Sky Conference. Since mid-November of Hill's first year on the job, the Wildcats are 15-9. WSU is in the playoffs for the first time since 2009.

"The culture of winning is really growing," Hill said, "but we're not there yet. And that's a good thing."

He's proud of a team that showed resilience at two checkpoints during the season — after a double-overtime loss at South Dakota in the second game and after two straight losses that followed a five-game winning streak. The Wildcats closed the regular season with two victories, finishing 6-2 in Big Sky play and proving their toughness in November.

They promised in August to be "strong like Sara," and they've succeeded, according to her: "It's been fun to watch them fight through things."

Then again, their job is relatively easy, compared with a treatment regimen that gets "harder and harder," Sara Hill, 38, acknowledged.

"To go through it personally is eye-opening," said Jay Hill, who accompanies Sara to her five-hour treatments every other Wednesday at McKay-Dee Hospital. He'll converse with the 20 or so other patients and watch film on his laptop, and she'll continue treatment for Hodgkin's lymphoma that will last until mid-January.

The FCS national championship game is Jan. 7. Would having the Wildcats last that long in the 24-team playoffs be asking too much? Probably so. Just as likely, their season could end Saturday.

In any case, here's what the Hills have discovered this year: Winning does not cure everything. Does it make everything else more tolerable, though? Absolutely.

Overhearing the conversation, Jay Hill turns away from his game film. "Trust me," he says. "In this profession, winning helps."

Having the bulk of her treatment schedule coincide with the football season has created almost a risk/reward element for Sara Hill as "the pendulum swings from the elation of a win to the pity of loss," she said.

"If you know Jay and Sara, they're Mr. and Mrs. Positive," said Oregon State coach Gary Andersen, Jay Hill's former colleague at Utah. "I'm sure it's been tough. To be where they are on the football field is a good reward."

Following the 2016 Wildcats has been an adventure, that's for sure. Weber State lost a 21-point lead in the fourth quarter of that double-overtime defeat at South Dakota, one of the two games that Sara's health forced her to miss. She witnessed another crazy game at UC Davis, where the Wildcats blew a 22-point lead in the second half before winning via a field goal on the final play, then stayed home when WSU came from 22 points down in the last eight minutes of a 37-36 victory at Southern Utah on Oct. 22.

After that, she told her doctor, "I can't miss any more games."

"It's been a crazy season, all around," she said. "It's gone by so fast, which means chemo has gone by so fast."

Even so, there's a long way to go. Unlike the Wildcats' existence in the playoffs, her chemotherapy schedule is fixed — four more treatments, ending Jan. 18.

Regardless of the outcomes, immersing herself in the Wildcats' season and her children's activities in what she labels an "almost normal" lifestyle keeps her mind off her illness. The reality of her treatment still hits home every other week. The process is worse, now that she knows what to expect. Nausea strikes her the day before treatments, or even when she's talking about it in a Pavlovian response that she wishes she could overcome.

She's thankful to friends and neighbors who have helped her, and the Hills' three daughters and one son have "handled it like champs," she said. The family also dealt with what ordinarily would have seemed like a crisis in the middle of the season. A tornado missed their home in South Ogden, but rain flooded their basement, which needed remodeling.

Through it all, Sara Hill has been lifted by the WSU players. She brings them candy bars every Thursday and they try to come through for her on Saturdays, as they'll do this weekend in Tennessee. The Wildcats have helped her come this far in the treatment cycle, with two months remaining. And this is all she's asking now: "Let's play a few more football games."

kkragthorpe@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribkurt

Weber State coach Jay Hill reacts after his team scores on an interception during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., Friday, Sept. 4, 2015. Oregon State won 26-7. (AP Photo/Don Ryan)
Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Weber State Wildcats head coach Jay Hill. Southern Utah University defeated Weber State University 44-0, October 2, 2015 at Stewart Stadium in Ogden.
Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Sara Hill and her husband, Weber State football coach Jay Hill, talk about her battle with Hodgkins lymphoma and how the Wildcat family has rallied around her and her husband at Stewart Stadium, Wednesday, August 24, 2016. Weber State football players, coaches and family and friends shaved their heads in support of her chemotherapy treatments.
Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Sara Hill hugs her daughter Allie, 5, after she and her husband, Weber State football coach Jay Hill, talked about her battle with Hodgkins lymphoma and how the Wildcat family has rallied around her and her husband at Stewart Stadium, Wednesday, August 24, 2016. Weber State football players, coaches and family and friends shaved their heads in support of her chemotherapy treatments.
Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune Sara Hill and her husband, Weber State football coach Jay Hill, talk about her battle with Hodgkins lymphoma and how the Wildcat family has rallied around her and her husband at Stewart Stadium, Wednesday, August 24, 2016. Weber State football players, coaches and family and friends shaved their heads in support of her chemotherapy treatments.