As monumental as the 2017 season was for the Fort Hays State football program, the 2018 campaign was perhaps even more crucial for the Tigers.
A year after running the table in the MIAA, Fort Hays proved the 2017 success was no one-year wonder, claiming the conference championship for the second straight year.
The 2018 season brought far more adversity than the year before, with the Tigers’ playoff hopes looking bleak midway through the season after a road loss to Emporia State dropped them to 4-2. But FHSU reeled off five straight wins — including a 17-16 victory at Northwest Missouri — to finish the regular season 9-2 and share the MIAA title with Northwest.
“I feel this one was a lot harder, just because of all the adversity we’ve been through this year — injuries and losing games we shouldn’t have really lost,” FHSU senior quarterback Jacob Mezera said. “It’s just been crazy. I can’t even explain it. There’s just been so much adversity this year and I’m really proud of everybody just sticking together and believing in what we’re doing.
“Here we are, and it’s so much sweeter than last year’s, I think, honestly.”
Fort Hays coach Chris Brown agreed.
“Last year, being undefeated through the conference, that’s a big feat and that’s awesome and that’s really, really hard to do,” Brown said. “But these kids made me eat my words at Emporia when I said you’re just playing for pride now.
“They had something more to say about that. Just the adversity that they fought through all season long with injuries across the board, guys not playing fully healthy, and just getting the job done. That says a lot about these kids the way they want to battle, compete and not give up.”
Fort Hays State repeating as MIAA champs is the top story in The Hays Daily News sports year in review.
The Tigers are still searching for their first NCAA playoff win, falling 38-27 on the road to the University of Indianapolis in the first round of the playoffs this past season.
“I’m proud of the kids and the things they’ve done to get this program on the map,” Brown said following the season-ending loss. “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.”
FHSU will lose 10 seniors — 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.”
It was a year full of personal records and milestones for the Tigers.
Brown, now 58-34 after eight seasons as FHSU coach, became the program’s all-time wins leader.
Mezera left with virtually every significant career passing record in program history, completing 653 passes for 7,682 yards and 60 touchdowns. And Delgado wrapped up his career as the Tigers’ NCAA 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.”
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.
Quarterback Chance Fuller is set to take the reins of the offense after a promising freshman season. Fuller split time with Mezera throughout the year and started the Northwest and UIndy games.
The cupboard won’t be bare next season, with FHSU 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.”