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Game looms large for Tiger men

By CONOR NICHOLL

cnicholl@dailynews.net

Last season, Fort Hays State University men's basketball coach Mark Johnson called the home game against Northwest Missouri State University on Feb. 6 the "biggest game of the year." The Tigers collected a 59-58 last-second victory, a win that eventually propelled FHSU to a conference championship.

This winter, the Tigers play host to Northwest Missouri State University in a 4 p.m. start Saturday at Gross Memorial Coliseum. FHSU is receiving votes in the NCAA Division II poll at 8-2, 0-2 MIAA. Northwest Missouri, ranked No. 2 in the preseason MIAA poll behind the Tigers, stands at 7-4, 2-0 MIAA.

"This game is about as big a game as we are going to have all season," Johnson said.

Fort Hays opened the conference slate with back-to-back overtime losses at University of Central Missouri and Missouri Western State University. Northwest Missouri has five seniors, including speedy point guard DeShaun Cooper and a big front line. Senior Dillon Starzl leads five scorers in double figures with 17.2 points and 5.5 rebounds per game.

Fort Hays last opened 0-2 in the MIAA in 2008-09 and eventually started 2-5 in conference play before it finished 20-9 and narrowly missed the NCAA tournament.

"It's going to be a bigger game than the last two games that we played, because they are a big, strong, physical team, and we are going to need everyone for that game," senior forward Dwayne Brunson said.

Starzl stands at 6-foot-8, 250 pounds, while senior Kyle Schlake is 6-10, 250 and junior Grant Cozad is 6-8, 205 and averages 11.6 points a contest.

Cooper missed a 22-point loss to Southwest Minnesota State University on Nov. 10, but Northwest's other three losses have come by a combined 13 points.

"They have got some really good guards, but I think Starzl is probably the best back-to-basket post player that we have in our conference," Johnson said. "Cozad up front, too. They have got a very good, physical, big, strong front line. I think size and physicalness has given us problems all year, and we are really going to be challenged. Our big guys really need to be at their best."

FHSU has suffered several injuries among its forwards. Senior Andrew Victoria, the team's biggest player at 6-8, 230 pounds, has longtime knee issues. Sophomore Jake Stoppel (6-5, 210) is coming back from ankle and knee injuries, while Brunson has battled a knee problem. Brunson leads the Tigers with 18.2 points and 9.3 rebounds.

"It can get worse, if I don't treat it or take care of it, but I am doing all that," Brunson said. "Right now, it's just a little slight ouch in it still. But I will be back by (Saturday). It's just ice, stretching and treatment."

Victoria has averaged 3.9 points and 3.8 rebounds this winter and is expected to play key minutes against Starzl and the big forwards. Early on, Victoria's knee was really bothering him and there was uncertainty whether the forward could continue.

"We have done a better job, I think, of monitoring his practice to alleviate some of that pain issue on his knee," Johnson said. "I think he has done well."

Stoppel has tallied 29 and 18 minutes the last two games, his most in back-to-back contests this season.

Senior Marty Wendel (6-6, 210) didn't play in the first half of the last contest against Central Christian College on Dec. 14, but finished with a career-high 10 points in 12 minutes. Johnson wanted to give Wendel, who averages nearly nine minutes a game, plenty of playing time to prepare for Saturday.

"It's a good chance that we are going to need him (Saturday) with the front line that Northwest Missouri has," Johnson said.

"They are big, physical guys and Marty is a pretty good athlete. He is a little more bigger body guy than we have, and plus, he is one of the few, healthy big guys that we have."