MARYVILLE, Mo. — Winning a conference football championship? Pretty sweet.
Winning a conference championship in a place the road team rarely comes out on top — even sweeter?
Taking out arguably the greatest football dynasty the MIAA and NCAA Division II has seen on its home turf in the process?
Keep pouring the sugar on, because it gets even sweeter for Fort Hays State University. After a 13-12 thriller at Bearcat Stadium, the 10-0 Tigers are the 2017 MIAA champions.
“It’s indescribable,” Tiger junior defensive back Connor Shedeed said. “We’re so happy right now. That is a dynasty program, and we have so much respect for them.
“To take them down makes it that much sweeter.”
But it certainly wasn’t easy, and took a last-second defensive stop to get it done in a defensive battle between the two best defensive teams in the conference and arguably the nation.
Neither team really budged for the better part of 60 game-time minutes Saturday, each playing like the dominant programs they’ve been through 2017.
“Two great teams going at it,” FHSU coach Chris Brown said. “They are amazing on defense, and our defense did a great job today, too.”
That might be an understatement. Neither team wanted to bend in what turned into a 3-3 tie by the end of the first half. The only scores were a 28-yard field goal by Northwest’s Parker Sampson and a 48-yarder for Tiger Brandon Brown.
“It was a tough one,” said Tiger sophomore Harley Hazlett. “We knew we had great defenses. They just kept slugging it out all game.”
That was until Hazlett made one of two huge plays for the Tigers that helped seal the crown.
The Tigers had taken a 6-3 lead to start the third quarter on a 36-yard field goal by Brown, but Hazlett — with 9 minutes, 25 seconds left in the game — found paydirt.
While FHSU continued to pound with senior Kenneth Iheme and Charles Tigner in the run game against Northwest’s nation-leading run defense, Hazlett broke free on a long route for 66 yards to help put FHSU up 13-3.
“I saw the middle of the field open, so I had a window,” the sophomore from Abilene said. “I just told Jake to put it on me, and I would make a play.”
It worked as designed, Coach Brown said.
“That’s impressive for us. We needed that to happen,” he said. “All these kids made plays today. Coaches did a great job of preparing these young men day-in and day-out.”
The long pass play was part of a 180-yard passing day for Mezera, who completed 12 of 28 passes with no interceptions.
On the next drive, though, the FHSU defense broke for the only time as Northwest Missouri responded by going 75 yards on 14 plays to pull within three with 6:06 to play.
“We just weren’t making the plays on third downs. We just have to step up and make plays,” Shedeed said. “They executed on that drive.”
Not so much on the next one, due in part to Shedeed. Northwest Missouri was threatening again, but the junior from Gretna, Neb., came up with a big play of his own, nabbing an interception.
“Our coaches put us in position to make plays, and that’s what we did,” he said. “We executed our game plan.”
The interception, though, didn’t seal it. FHSU read the sheet wrong and took a knee on first down. The Tigers ended up in fourth down near their own goal line with the clock stopped.
The Tigers, leading by three, opted to take a safety and free kick, running just a few more seconds off the clock. Northwest had another shot with 16 seconds remaining and got a deep pass. A pair of offsetting personal foul penalties, though, meant Northwest had just four seconds from long range.
Bearcat second-string quarterback Jonathan Baker threw it toward the end zone, and the hands team — and Hazlett — came down with it, snapping Northwest’s string of four straight MIAA championships.
“Our team, they battled week-in and week-out,” Coach Brown said after celebrating with the MIAA trophy and his team, and a plethora of Tiger fans that swarmed the Tigers at the 10-yard line. “They come to work every single day. I’m so proud of everything they’ve accomplished so far. Hopefully, we continue to win and get some more ball games and keep moving forward.”
The season is far from over. FHSU will close the regular season with a home game against Nebraska-Kearney and if they take care of business, the Tigers should get a first-round bye in the NCAA Division II playoffs — a place the Tigers will be for the first time since 1995.
But at least until Monday morning, FHSU will celebrate the school’s first conference championship since 1995.
Brown first thanked the families of his coaching staff, then the players, then the fans, clutching the wooden MIAA trophy the entire time.
“This is a Tiger victory,” he said. “This is a family victory.”