KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Fort Hays State’s unprecedented 2017 football season generated a buzz around the program and made the rest of the MIAA take notice of the new contender on the scene.
But even after a conference championship and undefeated regular season, the Tigers sounded like a team that still had a chip on their shoulders during MIAA Football Media Day on Tuesday at Children's Mercy Park.
“We kind of just dipped our foot in the pool and tested the waters,” junior tight end Matt Wendelberger said. “It gives us a taste of what it’s like. Now that we’ve been there before and we know what it’s like, we can really put our nose to the grindstone and get after it.
“What we did last year was good, but it wasn’t good enough.”
The season was a culmination to the years of progress the Tigers made under Chris Brown, who enters his eighth year at FHSU with a 49-31 record. FHSU reeled off 11 straight regular-season wins, including a 13-12 victory at Northwest Missouri State to seal the MIAA title.
“To see all that work pay off, it gives you a great deal of pleasure,” Brown said. “It makes you excited, it makes you want to come back and get more. How much better can we make these kids? It just gives you a sense of urgency and a sense of energy to keep moving forward and try to see what you can do next.”
The next obvious step forward would be an NCAA Division II playoff victory. The Tigers fell short of that pursuit with a 31-21 home loss to Ferris State in the second round of the playoffs last year after earning a first-round bye.
“We saw our weaknesses last year in the playoffs and we know where we need to improve,” FHSU senior linebacker Jose Delgado said. “I think just taking what we learned from that game and going forward this season will make a big difference.”
One thing the Tigers can take away from the experience is what it’s like to play in a playoff atmosphere. The game with Ferris State attracted 7,348 fans to Lewis Field Stadium.
“It’s fun to play in a setting like that,” Brown said. “When you’re there and you got two or three thousand people, it’s still a great setting, but once you get standing room only and people on the track and the fans are going crazy, that just makes the game so much more exciting.”
The Tigers were picked second in both the media and the coaches polls behind Northwest Missouri. FHSU is also ranked in the top five nationally by a couple preseason publications.
Brown has urged his team to embrace the target.
“Right when we got back from Christmas break,” Brown said, “we told the kids, ’That was last year’s team. Now there’s a target on your back still and this is this year’s team. So what are you guys going to do. How are you going to make it better? How much harder are you going to work to make sure you don’t get knocked off?
“These kids have done it. They’ve done everything we’ve asked them to do. They’ve done extra. And to win in this conference, you’ve got to do those things.”
On offense, the Tigers return six All-MIAA performers, including senior quarterback Jacob Mezera, who has 5,377 passing yards and 42 touchdowns in his career.
“It’s awesome because he’s obviously a great leader and he’s been in the program the longest,” Wendelberger said. “He’s everybody's friend on the football field. But it goes back to his leadership skills and determination. He’s not going to take no for an answer and you’re going to do it and you’re going to do it right.”
Other key returners on offense include Wendelberger, running back Charles Tigner, receivers Layne Bieberle and Harley Hazlett and offensive lineman Pat Kelly.
The Tigers, who will have to replace NFL draft pick Nathan Shepherd at defensive tackle, return seven starters and six All-MIAA selections on defense. Linebackers Delgado and Kolt Trachsel, defensive backs Doyin Jibowu, Tanner Hoeckman, Connor Shedeed and Aquil Knowles and defensive lineman Wyatt Parker all played key roles on the Tiger defense last year.
Delgado and Wendelberger were Brown’s choices to represent the Tigers at MIAA Media Day.
“They’re hard-nosed. They got their goals and they work hard every single day,” Brown said. “They motivate guys. If guys aren’t working hard enough they’ll make sure they get those guys working just as hard as anybody else.
“I like to give kids experiences, too. I’ve brought Jacob (Mezera) before. Shedeed, Jibowu — there’s a lot of other guys that could’ve came as well. I want every kid we can to experience something like this. Those two haven’t come before and I know they’re going to be great leaders."
The Tigers will start their MIAA title defense at home against Central Missouri on Aug. 30.