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Tigers take on Mules for Senior Day

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Fort Hays State University senior offensive lineman Josh Reese had plenty of time to think on a long bus ride to Rapid City, S.D., last week for the Tigers' contest at South Dakota School of Mines. Reese, from McPherson, has played in every game in his career (42 contests) with 32 starts. Reese has no plans to continue his football career and thought about his career with the Tigers and his final two weeks.

On Saturday, the Tigers (4-5, 3-5 MIAA) will play University of Central Missouri (5-4, 5-4 MIAA) on Senior Day at Lewis Field Stadium. Game time is 2 p.m. Next week, FHSU finishes up with a road contest at University of Nebraska-Kearney. Two victories gives Fort Hays a winning season. FHSU has won three straight and four of its last five. Central Missouri has lost two in a row by a combined seven points to unranked teams and has dropped out of the playoff picture.

"Putting it all in," Reese said of the final games of his career. "This is huge."

Fort Hays' current winning streak is the longest since the Tigers started 3-0 in the 2010 season. FHSU hasn't won four in a row in one season since 2004. Second-year coach Chris Brown credited a senior class that includes Reese as a group that has done everything the coaching staff has asked, led well and played solidly. The seniors have helped FHSU turn the corner after an 0-4 start against four squads that are currently the MIAA's top-four teams and are ranked in the top 25 nationally.

"They never give up," Brown said. "They never quit. They always keep fighting every play. They want to be successful. It just takes time."

Brown wants the Tigers to play with the same intensity he saw in a 21-3 home loss in Week 4 to Missouri Western State University, currently ranked No. 11 in Division II. One concern for FHSU is slow starts in home games.

"This is Senior Day," Brown said. "This is a day that we come out with high intensity, high motors, a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm. This is a game that we need to get for these seniors. We've got to come out flying around, hitting on all cylinders, and ready to play the game fast, physical and furious."

Fort Hays has lost six in a row to the Mules, though two of the last four meetings have been decided by three points. Central Missouri runs a spread offense that Brown said uses plenty of shifts and motions. Junior Colter Smith ranks second in the MIAA with 2,535 passing yards. However, he has 18 TDs against 12 interceptions, second-most among league starters.

"They just had some miscues, and if they get those sured up, they will be a very solid team," Brown said.

For Fort Hays, junior quarterback Tarean Austin has completed 123 of 240 passes for 1,294 yards with a 10/8 TD/INT ratio. Last week, the Tigers defeated Mines 41-27 despite being outgained 415-408. Brown wasn't pleased with some defensive breakdowns, and FHSU led 14-13 until one second remained before halftime.

"Can't quite figure out how to get rid of those letdowns," Brown said.

Still, Fort Hays scored its third special teams TD in the last two weeks when senior Keke Paul blocked a field goal and returned it 80 yards for a score with 42 seconds left in the third quarter. Paul had been close to the end zone on a couple of interception returns this season, but the kick marked his first TD in two years with the Tigers.

Assistant coach Zach Watkins told Paul to "lay out" for the ball and try to block the kick.

"Whole game, PAT block, field goal block. I wasn't necessarily being lazy, but I wasn't giving it my max effort towards blocking the football," Paul said.

Paul read the play perfectly, blocked the kick, saw the ball, picked it up and started sprinting the other way.

"Tried to time it just right when they snapped the ball and right as they snapped the ball, I got a good jump," he said.

Paul, a transfer from Butte (Calif.) Community College, has started every game in the last two seasons with the Tigers. Like Reese, he has put together a strong career. Paul would like to try to play Arena Football or possibly in the Canadian Football League after this season ends. But Reese and Paul, like the rest of the seniors, want to make their final game in Hays with a victory.

"We had a pretty slow start and this would be huge to come out with a winning season," Reese said.