HAYS — The 2017 Fort Hays State University football team is the new MIAA champion.
There is no denying that fact now.
But the Tigers remain focused on the task at hand. Simply winning a conference championship, they say, is not enough. Especially for a Tiger team in the midst of the program’s biggest season in its history.
For that simple reason, Tiger seventh-year coach Chris Brown said he hasn’t really had to remind his team what’s at stake. They’ve done a good enough job keeping themselves focused through the MIAA gauntlet, one that included a 13-12 thrilling victory last week at two-time defending national champion Northwest Missouri State University.
Brown said, though, his club came back to Earth fairly quickly, despite winning such an emotional, thrilling conference title that came down to the game’s final play.
The efforts turn to University of Nebraska-Kearney for Saturday’s 2 p.m. senior day kickoff at Lewis Field Stadium. While the Lopers will end their season in Hays, FHSU has high hopes for an undefeated season, a first-round bye in the playoffs, and home field advantage for at least the regional round in NCAA Division II.
“There’s a lot more football left,” said Tiger senior running back Kenneth Iheme. “And a lot more things we want to accomplish.”
So far, the Tigers have proven they aren’t satisfied. They weren’t content with beating Pittsburg State or beating Central Missouri. They aren’t simply happy with reaching new heights in the Division II rankings, or claiming the school’s first MIAA championship, or even knocking off the two-time defending champs on their home turf to get it done.
So the goal is pretty clear for a highly focused group: Beat UNK, a team that has given FHSU some fits in recent years. The Lopers also have played tough in the MIAA this season, beating Missouri Western to open the season, and holding Northwest Missouri to 13 points. While the odds would favor a Tiger victory, FHSU knows it can’t take anyone lightly. They’ve had that mentality all season.
“It’s just a different group of kids,” Brown said of his team. “They want great things to happen and they’re not going to stop until they reach that goal.”
Like they have the last two weeks, the Tigers essentially are treating Saturday’s senior day as a playoff game. FHSU has all but secured a playoff spot with the MIAA title, but home field advantage and the first-round bye would be huge milestones in what now has turned into a national title trophy hopeful season — at least for every fan not in a Tiger uniform. For FHSU, that was always the goal. They’ve taken a week-by-week approach.
“You just go into each game like it’s a 0-0 game,” said sophomore receiver Layne Bieberle. “You have to prepare for them like that. Kearney is a great team.”
The Tigers understand, too, they have a great deal to lose to the Lopers if things don’t go well. Kearney is just playing to end its season on a high note, much like last season when FHSU won 27-17 in Kearney. The win helped solidify FHSU bowl appearance and eventual win against Eastern New Mexico in the Heart of Texas Bowl, the Tigers’ first postseason victory. First-year UNK coach Josh Lynn, was the coach of that ENM team.
He brought some of the same ideals to a UNK team that is run first, but will throw some play-action in the mix. Thomas Rusell leads the Lopers with 566 rushing yards and three scores, while quarterback Steve Worthing has completed 128 passes for 1,442 yards and eight scores. The Lopers rank 10th in the MIAA in scoring at 17.7 points per contest, and have given up nearly 30 per outing.
FHSU counters with one of the best offenses in the conference, led by Iheme’s MIAA-best 1,118 yards. The senior has made the most of his chance to lead the Tiger backfield, turning in 10 rushing scores and a pair of receiving scores. With a redshirt and a medical redshirt, Iheme will celebrate senior day after being in the program for six years. He knows FHSU will have to come to play to turn back the Lopers.
“Every game they’ve played this season they’ve played really hard,” Iheme said. “Just because it’s the last game, you’re not expecting them to let up. They’re going to come at us hard and try and get a loss on our record.”
FHSU touts the MIAA’s second-best scoring defense. The Tigers averaged 35 points per game and have surrendered just 14.5 points. Still, FHSU hasn’t recorded the shutout the defense has been desiring so much. They know that won’t be easy in any game.
“They’re always a tough team to beat,” Tiger senior Trae Regier said of UNK. “The rivalry’s a big factor in that. We respect the athletes they have, everything they have. It’s going to be a good game.”