The build-up is over. The hype surrounding the Fort Hays State University football team’s run to the program’s first bowl win a season ago is all but gone.
It’s a new season, and another team’s opportunity is here.
That’s the message Tiger seventh-year head coach Chris Brown has for his team as it gets set for Thursday’s 7 p.m. kickoff at Missouri Southern State University.
It’s time to see what the Tigers are made of, and if the confidence the program has after it’s successful 8-4 run a season ago really is warranted.
“I still get butterflies, still get nervous,” Brown said Tuesday as the Tigers prepare for the Lions. “You look good against each other, but are we really pretty good or are we just an average football team?”
That’s the big question as the Tigers look to carry over the momentum from a historic year in FHSU’s NCAA Division II history.
“They’re taking it one game at a time. They’re preparing one game at a time to get to that level,” Brown said.
And what is that level?
“We don’t want to look too far ahead. You take it one game at a time,” senior running back Kenneth Iheme said. “The goal is conference championship, national championship.”
In the MIAA, those are big words. But, those expectations are still there for what continues to be a rising program.
“They know that one loss is not going to get you a conference championship, and two losses is probably not going to get you a playoff spot. They understand all those things,” the coach added. “They want a conference championship, they want a national championship. This is a group that’s put the time and effort in.”
Now it’s just a matter of getting those first-game jitters out of the way against Missouri Southern, a team that was 11th in the conference a year ago, finished 2-9 and returns just a handful of players who saw any considerable time on the field.
Not knowing what to expect, the Tigers — presumably the better team — will have to adjust on the fly to what the Lions put on the field. There are some unknowns heading in.
“The first game is always the interesting one, because you really don’t know what they are going to come out with,” said junior bandit backer Doyin Jibowu. “Through the countless repetitions we’ve had, they could come out with anything and I feel like we would be ready for it.”
The Lions do have a new quarterback in Dante Vandeven, named the starter this fall. Vandeven is a transfer from Southeast Missouri State after playing in three games as a sophomore for the Redhawks. Two seasons ago, he took over as the starter at SE Missouri and was named the Ohio Valley Conference Freshman of the Year, starting the final eight games of the season.
With numerous unknowns, though, FHSU is focused heavily on the team it puts on the field Thursday, and the things it can control.
“You never know until you get there, but excited about this group of kids,” Brown said. “They’re prepared. They’re ready. They’ve put a lot of work in, and hopefully that work pays off.
“You really just have to focus on our guys and what they’re doing, and get ready to make some adjustments as the game goes on.”