History has been made.
It seems to be a repeat story every week for the Fort Hays State University football team. Reaching new heights day-in and day-out has become just another day at the office.
And yet, the Tigers are hoping that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
The latest milestone came Saturday when FHSU took out University of Nebraska-Kearney 41-7 behind a dominant defensive effort at Lewis Field Stadium. The win punctuated the Tigers’ 11-0 run to a Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association title.
It’s the first 11-win season in Tiger history, and at least ensured FHSU will play host to an NCAA Division II playoff game. It will mark the first postseason appearance since 1995.
“It’s an awesome feeling,” seventh-year coach Chris Brown said following the win. “It’s hard to go 11-0 in this conference. We achieved that goal.
“Now we’ve just got to continue on to the playoffs and see how far we can get.”
The Tigers entered the week ranked No. 1 in Super Region 3, and now will wait for today’s announcement of the bracket to see when and where they will be playing.
First and foremost on the Tigers’ minds Saturday, though, wasn’t the final margin of the contest, but just putting up the win.
“We just knew if we come out and knew how to play, we were going to take care of them,” said sophomore wide receiver Layne Bieberle. “We did a good job of that.”
FHSU was firing on all cylinders out of the gate. Senior Trae Regier set FHSU up at the UNK 39-yard line with a big return, and the Tigers used nine plays to find the end zone with a 2-yard run by senior Kenneth Iheme.
The offense, though, seemed to slow a bit the rest of the first half, but still managed to put up 13 more points.
“I still feel like there’s a few lulls,” Brown said of the offense, despite junior quarterback Jacob Mezera spreading the ball around, helping senior Brandon Brown connect on a pair of field goals to put FHSU up 13-0 by the 14:45 mark of the second quarter.
“I would rather score touchdowns.”
The way the FHSU defense was playing, 10 would have been enough. But the Tigers took advantage of that good defense to go up 20-0. Sophomore defensive lineman Sheldon Schmidt pounced on a UNK fumble, and the Tiger offense responded by going 24 yards on four plays, capped by a 1-yard shovel from Mezera to sophomore Harley Hazlett.
“We definitely came out with a chip on our shoulder,” Tiger safety Tanner Hoekman said. “We just wanted to come out and dominate and show who the undefeated team really is. And just show our dominance in the conference. We showed that today.”
Especially in the final minute. UNK (3-8) had called a timeout to force an FHSU punt as the Lopers were trying to make something happen before halftime. With 35 seconds left, Hoekman jumped a route in the flat and picked off UNK quarterback Steve Worthing, returning it 33 yards for a 27-0 Tiger lead at the break.
“The coaches just put me in great position to do that,” Hoekman said.
“Tanner’s interception was a huge play for us,” Coach Brown added. “That kind of set the tone for the second half.”
Outside of a pair of long plays, the FHSU defense kept UNK from getting anything going offensively. Things didn’t change much in the second half either. After forcing a punt to start the third quarter, FHSU then went on a nine-play, 70-yard drive, capped by a 3-yard strike from Mezera to sophomore tight end Matt Wendelberger.
Mezera spread the ball around to seven different receivers to put up his 204 passing yards. Bieberle led the way with eight catches for 105 yards. Hazlett notched eight catches for 64 yards.
“We just took advantage of everything they gave us,” Bieberle said. “Jacob did a good job delivering balls — did a good job going through his progression every time.”
Iheme finished his day with 100 yards on 14 carries, and was spelled for most of the fourth quarter by reserves. Isaiah Blackmon scored the Tigers’ final touchdown with 13:37 to play after FHSU had given up the lone UNK touchdown toward the end of the third.
“We need to clean up a little bit, just not having those big plays,” Hoekman said. “That’s going to be big in the playoffs. Other than that, I feel like our defense played solid, lights out.”
UNK finished with 300 yards, with 198 coming through the air. The Tigers put up 205 on the ground in a workman-like effort for the 11-0 run.
An undefeated run through the MIAA is a rarity, and should be good enough to keep FHSU as the No. 1 seed.
“These kids have done an excellent job of trying to reach this milestone,” Brown said. “They’ve been a part of history this whole season.
“Hopefully we keep making history, and hopefully we get to the big one.”
Fans are welcome to join the Tigers today as the team will find out its postseason fate with the NCAA Selection Show. The university will host a watch party beginning at 3:45 p.m. inside Gross Memorial Coliseum.
“So amazing. The community is behind us. It’s cool to see that,” Hoekman said. ”(Sunday) will be a pretty big day for us. I’m excited to see it happen.”