The 2017 campaign was not a one-year wonder for the Fort Hays State football program.
Coming off a breakthrough 11-1 season, the Tigers followed it up with a second straight MIAA championship and playoff appearance.
Fort Hays’ bid for its first NCAA playoff win came up short, but the Tigers took another step forward in an effort to become a perennial power.
“I’m proud of the kids and the things they’ve done to get this program on the map,” FHSU coach Chris Brown said on Saturday following the Tigers' season-ending playoff loss to the University of Indianapolis. “Fort Hays, about eight years ago, it wasn’t even on the map. Now everybody knows who Fort Hays is and I’m proud of these young men for getting us to that point.
“Hopefully we’ll continue to do the things that we’re doing to get into the playoffs again.”
The Tigers finished 9-3 after falling 38-27 to UIndy in the first round of the NCAA Division II playoffs in Indianapolis. FHSU will lose 10 seniors — Jacob Mezera, Jose Delgado, Doyin Jibowu, Connor Shedeed, Aquil Knowles, Erin Gaither, Rex Diederich, Wyatt Parker, Malik Young and Geoffrey Lodge.
“Great class,” Brown said. “These young men did everything you asked them to do from Day 1 when they stepped on campus. This group of guys have really bought into what we are doing. Never missed a weight session. Never missed a meeting. Spent extra time in the film room. Did very, very well in the classroom. Every one of these guys in going to graduate with a degree. That’s the most important thing. ... Hopefully I grew them up as young men. I love them very much. These are my boys and they’ll always be my boys.”
FHSU’s chances to go back-to-back in the MIAA looked bleak after a 28-24 loss at Emporia State knocked the Tigers to 4-2. They responded with five straight wins — including a 17-16 triumph at Northwest Missouri State — to claw back for a share of the MIAA title with Northwest.
It was an historic year filled with milestones for the program. Brown became the winningest coach in program history, holding a 58-34 in eight seasons at FHSU.
Mezera leaves with virtually every significant career passing record in program history, completing 653 passes for 7,682 yards and 60 touchdowns.
Delgado is the Tigers’ NCAA career tackling leader with 398 career stops from his linebacker spot.
“Looking back at it now, it feels like it just went so fast,” Delgado said. “I enjoyed the moments with these guys. I’ll never forget it. I didn’t take it for granted. I don’t think I left any regrets on the field, so I’m pretty happy with the last four years here.”
Delgado was named MIAA defensive player of the year, junior kicker Dante Brown was special teams player of the year and Chris Brown was named coach of the year for the second straight year.
Dante Brown shattered the program's single-season mark for made field goals, connecting on 28 attempts, 12 more than the previous record held by Brandon Brown.
The Tigers will have to fill voids on the defensive side, losing three first-team All-MIAA selections in Delgado, defensive back Jibowu and defensive lineman Parker.
FHSU will also have to replace defensive back Connor Shedeed and defensive tackle Malik Young, both second-team All-MIAA performers and cornerback Aquil Knowles, an honorable mention pick.
But the Tigers also are set to return 12 players that received all-conference recognition — Dante Brown, offensive linemen Amari Angram-Boldin and Romello Burke, running backs Charles Tigner and D.J. Hickman, receivers Layne Bieberle and Harley Hazlett, tight end Matt Wendelberger, defensive lineman Sterling Swopes, linebacker Kolt Trachsel and defensive backs Tanner Hoekman and Keylon Kennedy.
“It’s going to take senior leadership from me and the rest of the guys,” Hazlett said. “We have to work over the summer. We got to change, when we get (to the playoffs), how we act. We got to be able to be mature about it and move forward, because at the end of the day, winning the national championship is the end goal.”
Chance Fuller is Tigers’ quarterback of the future. The redshirt freshman split snaps with Mezera throughout the season and started the Northwest Missouri and UIndy games.
Hazlett said he expects more underclassmen to emerge as key players next season.
“We got a lot of redshirt guys that we’re expecting to count on, as well as maybe even new Juco transfers,” Hazlett said. “Being able to be a senior leader and tell them, ‘Hey this is the expectation, this is how it is when we get here,’ is going to be a big part.”