MINONK — As judges of talent, Pantagraph sports journalists are supposed to pick the Area Male Athlete of the Year.
Some years, however, the honoree sort of chooses himself.
That's what Fieldcrest High School junior Jaxon Cusac-McKay has done during a school year in which he was the only athlete to earn Pantagraph All-Area first team honors in football and basketball.
Besides producing impressive statistics for a 12-1 football team that made the Class 2A Final Four and a 27-7 basketball team that made the Elite Eight, Cusac-McKay played with flair.
"He lives for the big stage," said former Fieldcrest football coach Derek Schneeman, who will be a DeKalb assistant coach next season. "He's so competitive. His skill set in both sports speak for themselves.
"He's one of the types of kids you love to have because he never shies away from the big moment. When the chips are down, you want the ball in Jaxon's hands."
As a three-year starter in basketball, Cusac-McKay has had the basketball enough to score 1,179 career points.
"He hit a lot of key buckets," said Hall of Fame hoops coach Matt Winkler, who'll never forget Cusac-McKay sinking three free throws with two seconds left to secure a one-point win over Central Catholic in December's State Farm Holiday Classic. "That was awesome. Jaxon had so many big games for us this year."
The first thing Cusac-McKay mentions about his junior seasons of football and basketball is that both ended with losses. Then he concedes both campaigns were great. In basketball, he took a team with four new starters to the super-sectional.
"It (football) was really fun, which was one of the most important things," he said. "We've got to try to get better next year to try to get that state championship. Like football, we had a lot of fun (during basketball season). It was one to remember."
The 5-foot-10, 160-pound Cusac-McKay earned all-area honors as a wide receiver after making an area-leading 59 catches. Ten grabs went for touchdowns. His 792 receiving yards ranked second in the area.
"The kid's a leader," Schneeman said. "Everybody looks up to him and not just kids in his class, kids above him, too. They see his confidence, especially in tight games. I think that confidence translates to everyone else, too. Everyone just kind of feeds off of him."
Cusac-McKay nursed a shoulder injury from football during the first month of the basketball season, but still averaged 15.0 points, 4.1 assists, 3.9 rebounds and 2.1 steals en route to unanimous all-Heart of Illinois Conference honors.
The honorable mention all-stater was routinely guarded by opponents' top defenders. He made 62 3-pointers on 34% accuracy and converted 83.5% of his free throw attempts.
"As long as I've known him, he's always had a basketball in his hand," Winkler said. "He handles the ball so well because he puts in the time either on his own or in practice, going through his ballhandling drills and trying new things. That's why he's one of the best ballhandlers in the state of Illinois."
Cusac-McKay has helped Fieldcrest win three consecutive regionals, reach the Sweet 16 once and the Elite Eight once.
"I think Jaxon made everybody around him better," Winkler said. "Jaxon just became a much better player this year. I thought his defense got better as the year went on.
"He's just really becoming a complete player. Hopefully we'll take that next step next year and make the state tournament."
Helping Cusac-McKay shine in both sports was a combination of his 4.7-second 40-yard dash speed and uncanny elusiveness.
"The way he sets guys up in football is the same way he sets guys up in basketball running the point," Schneeman said. "He breaks his man down and is either able to take it to the hole or drive and kick.
"It's so unique, his agility and the way he gets up to top speed within one or two steps. You definitely see that on the football field and basketball court."
As a cornerback, Cusac-McKay intercepted seven passes.
"He's not afraid of contact," Schneeman said. "I wouldn't be shy about putting him at outside linebacker, either. He's a very special talent."
Cusac-McKay says he enjoys practices as much as games.
"Friday night football games are definitely the most exciting of anything that I do sports wise," he said. "Practice ... you've got to do it to be a great player."
Cusac-McKay likes both sports equally, but in football, he has a position preference.
"I definitely like offense more, but on defense, you get to let a little bit of aggression out," he said. "Defense is fun, too."
Cusac-McKay credits his practice habits for helping him excel in pressure situations.
"You've got to stick with what you do in practice," he said. "I just did my regular free throw routine (against Central Catholic), took a deep breath and tried not to make the situation any bigger than it was."
The more coaches demand, the more Cusac-McKay seems to thrive. He expects Winkler to find his faults.
"He is your biggest critic on the court, but he's your biggest fan at the same time," Cusac-McKay said. "He's yelling at you because he wants you to do the best that you can. He knows your potential. That's something I truly respect about him."
In both sports, Cusac-McKay plays with confidence.
"I try to think I'm the best at what I do when I get on the court and get on the field no matter what so I can try to play my best every time," he said.
In thinking he is the best, Cusac-McKay has like-minded judges of talent on the Pantagraph sports staff.
Contact Randy Sharer at (309) 820-3405. Follow him on Twitter: @Pg_sharer