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FHSU on road for season finale

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Josh Reese never considered playing college football until his senior year at McPherson High School, then a powerhouse in Class 5A. Several junior colleges recruited Reese, but helped by high school teammate Alex Whitehill, Reese ended up as a walk-on at Fort Hays State University under former coach Kevin Verdugo.

"Whitehill basically begged them to recruit me to walk-on," Reese said.

Last year, Whitehill graduated after he earned All-American honors at linebacker and played in every game in his career, 44 in all.

On Saturday, Reese will match his high school and collegiate teammate's feat and play in all 44 games in a unique career. He has played every position on the offensive line except center.

"I can thank Whitehill for getting me here," Reese said.

Reese, an undersized offensive lineman for much of his career, will start his 34th career game when FHSU (4-6, 3-6 MIAA) finishes the season at rival University of Nebraska-Kearney (3-7, 3-7 MIAA).

Game time is 12:30 p.m. A Tiger victory would yield a one-win improvement from last season's 4-7, 3-6 MIAA season.

"As coaches, we can see improvement every week in the way we play the game, and the way our kids are learning their fundamentals and techniques and learn the system," second-year coach Chris Brown said. "You go 4-7 to the community and everybody surrounding, nothing has really changed, it is the same as last year. If we go 5-6, it now at least shows progress,making the change of where we want to get to in the future."

The 6-foot-4, 270-pound Reese, a starter at left tackle the last two seasons, and senior guard Hawk Rouse have led a strong offensive line. Rouse has played in 40 career games with 38 career starts.

"They are the main leaders," Brown said. "They do a good job of getting those guys focused and ready. They've got a lot of excitement, a lot of enthusiasm. They are very tough, hard-nosed kids. That is really what our offensive line has come down to is tough, hard-nosed kids. They really want to get the job done."

Senior right tackle Logan Jones has started all 21 contests since he transferred to FHSU two years ago. As well, redshirt freshmen Matt Erbert and Jarred Stindt have played at guard and center, respectively. Those five have started every game of the year.

Fort Hays has had injuries from its top four tailbacks, but has still rushed for 173.4 yards per game and 4.6 yards per carry -- the second-best rushing numbers since the Tigers switched to the MIAA seven years ago.

"Those guys are tough," senior quarterback Anthony Sheppard said. "Those guys don't ask for no breaks. They just love to compete. The thing that you have got to love about them, the chemistry. They go hard for each other. I admire that. You can feed off of that. They are basically the strength of our offense."

In addition, senior defensive linemen Kyle Perry and Aaron Burton and senior linebackers Layton Hickel and Austin Hubert will complete four-year careers after playing in nearly every game. Hickel and Hubert lead the team in at least one key statistic.

Hickel, who was banged up midway through last week's 14-12 home loss to University of Central Missouri, has missed just one game in career - the Week 2 contest this fall.

"It would have to take a broken leg or something to keep me out from this one," Hickel said. "If I am a little banged up, that's all right. I have got the rest of my life to heal up. There is no question in my mind that I am going."

Hickel has 279 career tackles, fourth-best in the Tigers' NCAA Division II era, and leads the team with 87 tackles this season.

"It's been a blessing and I have enjoyed the ride the whole time," Hickel said.

Hubert, who has played 40 career games, has 78 tackles and a team-high 6.5 tackles for loss this fall.

"This year more than any other year - it's flying by," Hubert said. "It seems like just the other day we were in camp. It's been fun. It's been awesome. Came in five years ago and we have all stuck together."

Reese started his career as a 235-pound lineman. He redshirted as a freshman and then found himself on the field in the season-opening contest against Western State (Colo.) College in 2009. He didn't receive a scholarship until after his second season.

"I was just trying to get a spot on the bus on PAT or something, next thing I know, coach is telling me that I am playing on the way to western Colorado. I had no idea," he said.

In Week 6, Reese stepped in for injured tackle Wes Yarbough, a first all-MIAA player. He had to block Washburn All-American linebacker Zach Watkins, now a Tiger assistant coach.

"I was definitely nervous, and I had Hawk right there next to me. We were kind of the young ones," Reese said. "I was asking him what to do every play much."

Three years later, Rouse and Reese continue to start up front. They have blocked for four quarterbacks, more ten ball carriers and two different offenses under two coaching staffs.

The anchors, though, have helped deliver a solid year for the offense.

"It's been awesome," Reese said. "Now it's to the point where we are comfortable with the offense. We know everything, so we can kind of joke around. Some guys getting angry and are upset on the other team, we kind of egg them on a little."