Up until two years ago, football during Thanksgiving always was an afterthought for anyone associated with the Fort Hays State University football team.
Coaches more often than not already were fully on the recruiting trail. And the only way Tiger players experienced any football was probably on their television, sitting behind a plate full of holiday comfort food. Or, players are dealing the disappointment of turning in their equipment for the end of the season.
Oh, how things have changed.
With two bowl appearances and the program’s first postseason victory the last two seasons, football in November and December has become rather routine for the Tigers.
But even though taking a small break before postseason play is nothing new, there seems to be a little different feel around the office and film room facilities at Lewis Field Stadium.
And why not? After all, the Tigers now are taking the program somewhere it’s never been before.
It was clear having a little downtime before the university’s first home playoff game in history has paid dividends for a team that just mastered a brutal MIAA 2017 slate with an 11-0 mark.
“It’s definitely a positive vibe,” said Tiger junior wide receiver Monterio Burchfield, speaking Tuesday at a news conference at the site of Saturday’s 1 p.m. NCAA Division II playoff showdown. “I’m excited because I’ve never been in this position — fun being able to continue out here with the guys.”
Equally, the rest of the Tigers are enjoying the ride. That doesn’t mean, however, it’s all just fun and goofing around. Most of the team has used the last week and a couple of days to not only enjoy the moment, but get caught up on homework, and spend some quality time with family.
“We’re still focused, we just had more time,” said senior defensive lineman Nathan Shepherd. “It was a nice reward for sure.”
Plus, seventh-year Tiger coach Chris Brown said, it gave FHSU a little more time in the film room. When they weren’t doing other things, players were camped out in the film room, eating there, sleeping there, and studying up on Ferris State, the Tigers’ playoff opponent out of Michigan. It will mark the first meeting in the programs’ histories.
“You gotta enjoy it,” Brown said. “It doesn’t happen very often. There are only 16 teams left. You gotta enjoy the opportunity and hopefully take advantage of each opportunity you get.”
Not only that, but the Tigers have used the time off to rest their bodies. FHSU, while making its playoff debut as a member of the MIAA, has been in postseason mode all year. While it might come with an added “win-or-go-home” mentality, the Tigers aren’t treating Saturday’s contest any different from an average week in a brutal MIAA slate.
“Going back from Week 3 to (now), we’ve played in some tough games, some close games, and we were able to win those,” said senior running back Kenneth Iheme, who earlier this week found out he was one of 34 on the list for the 2017 Harlon Hill Trophy, Division II’s equivalent of the Heisman. “Right now the focus is just to win. We’ve done that all season.
“We’ve had some adversity, and we’ve found a way to win those games.”
And winning those 11 games in the style they have has put the program in this situation for the first time. Winning the MIAA also has the Tigers boasting a certain level of confidence as they prepare for the first postseason game at Lewis Field Stadium.
“You can feel that excitement in the community about Tiger football,” Brown said. “That’s something we wanted to bring back, give people something to do on Saturday — enjoy the experience with a team that’s winning ball games.”
Some of the Tigers even will be enjoying Thanksgiving with members of that community. Several players will be at today’s community dinner at Rose Garden Banquet Hall as they stay in town to prepare for Saturday’s game, another advantage to playing their first playoff game at home — in their hopes of playing a few more along the way.
“Being able to get the home field advantage in our first playoff game, that’s great,” Iheme said. “Being able to play in front of our fans in front of our school and everything like that.
“Couldn’t ask for anything more.”