Growing up in North Platte, Neb., Luke Wright was just a little more than an hour away from University of Nebraska-Kearney, now one of two NCAA Division II institutions in the state.
It seemed only natural once he became a standout player in high school, the Loper football team would be a good fit. He was close, after all, and his father had spent his football days in a Loper uniform.
But upon his prep graduation in 2013, things didn’t quite work out that way. Then he met with Fort Hays State University coach Chris Brown. During that meeting, Wright had a few simple words for the guy that eventually turned into his coach.
“I want to win,” Wright said.
Fast forward five years, and it’s pretty safe to say — mission accomplished.
Wright, along with a 12-player senior class, will be honored prior to Saturday’s regular season finale for the Tigers at Lewis Field Stadium. It just so happens FHSU will play Nebraska-Kearney once again. Wright, part of a dominant defensive front for the now 10-0 and No. 5 ranked Tigers, wouldn’t have it any other way.
“This is a big game for me all around,” said Wright, who now is actually a graduate student at FHSU. “I’ll make sure we’re ready to go.”
That hasn’t been a problem all season for FHSU, as Wright has been a part of a historic season to date for the Tigers. FHSU is on the verge of the first unbeaten regular season in its NCAA Division II era, the first 11-win season, the first playoff berth since 1995, and is the frontrunner for a first-round bye and home field advantage in the early going of the Division II playoffs.
For the senior class, it’s the culmination of a load of work through the years, meaning Saturday’s 2 p.m. kick against the Lopers has a little added flare.
“It’s big,” said senior running back Kenneth Iheme, a sixth-year senior out of Wichita and Heights High School. “(A win) would be great not only for the seniors, but for this program. 11-0 would just be a great feeling.
“We’re looking forward to playing Kearney on senior day,” he added. “It will be a great day.”
The senior class has helped solidify a foundation placed in the program seven years ago when Chris Brown took over the reins as its head coach after serving as a coordinator at Washburn University.
Wright was part of a redshirt group in 2013. That year, FHSU finished 6-5, a one-win improvement from the year prior. Since, FHSU has gone 7-4 and 8-4 twice with two appearances in the postseason, and last year the program’s first bowl victory.
Of course, all he wanted to do was win, and they’ve got that done.
“That’s what we’ve done the past five years,” Wright said. “Built the program. Wouldn’t change it for the world.”
This year’s senior class includes seven players who have been with the Tigers at least three years. Six of them are five-year guys.
“They’re a great group of kids,” Brown said. “This group has worked their tails off since they got here. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do.”
And things haven’t just been asked of this team on the field either. This group has done well in the classroom, and has helped lead the charge in getting as many as possible to show up for summer workouts.
The fifth-year class includes Trae Regier, defensive back from Haven. Regier will get the starting nod Saturday after spending the better part of his career as a Tigers as a reserve.
It used to be, he said, that FHSU was a place a football player just came because he knew he had a pretty decent shot to play and have an impact on a mediocre team. That’s not the case anymore.
“It’s been great to see from when I got here five years ago,” Regier said. “Just the dynasty that’s been built since. Big things are possible with Fort Hays State University. Right now, it’s a top school in the nation, a top school in this conference, and in the state.”
Brown credits this senior class, along with several others who helped pave the way for what the program has become.
“This is a special group,” the coach said. “They’ve done some outstanding things since they’ve been here. It goes back to their character, their work ethic, their commitment to this family.”
The five-year group includes Iheme, receiver Tyler Bacon, Wright, Regier, lineman Travis Talley, tight end J.J. Lewis. Defensive lineman Nathan Shepherd is a third-year guy, while reserve quarterback Brad Schencker has been in Hays four years after a transfer.
Their commitment has helped make the coaching staff’s job a bit easier as well. The veterans in the group help make sure players are where they need to be, whether it be in film study, the weight room, the classroom or at practice. The summer workouts, Wright said, are a big reason why FHSU has not only been great this season, but in the previous years.
“When we came in (this year), it was almost like this team was in midseason form,” he said. “We’ve had some troubles here and there, but we were ready to go right from the start.”
And while it won’t be the last game this season and probably not the last game for this senior class at Lewis Field Stadium, Saturday’s designated day for them is going to have a special feel.
“Just living in the moment,” Regier said. “There’s going to be a lot of emotions, especially with a chance to go 11-0, a lot of high emotions.”
That might be especially true for Wright, who has 3.5 tackles for loss and two sacks so far in his final campaign. Beating a Loper team of which he almost was a part would just be the icing.
“Senior day is always special regardless of what happens,” Wright said. “It could potentially be the last time on this field, but hopefully it’s not.”