FHSU picked to finish 2nd in MIAA

FHSU defeated Nebraska-Kearney 41-7 at Lewis Field Stadium in Hays on Saturday, November 11, 2017 to finish the regular season undefeated. (Photo: Everett Royer, www.ksportsimages.com)

KANSA CITY, Mo. (FHSU Athletics release) Defending MIAA Football Champion Fort Hays State was picked second in both the MIAA Preseason Coaches and Media Polls for the 2018 season, released on Tuesday (July 31) at MIAA Media Day in Kansas City. The polls were revealed at Children's Mercy Park, home of Sporting Kansas City and the Division II National Championship Football Game.

Both polls were very close, but both the coaches and media chose Northwest Missouri State to win a fifth MIAA title in six years. Northwest Missouri State won the MIAA Championship outright three times and shared it once over a four-year span from 2013 to 2016 before Fort Hays State snapped the streak by defeating NWMSU in Maryville last year, 13-12, to claim the title outright. The Tigers went on to complete an undefeated MIAA schedule the following week, going 11-0 for the regular season. Fort Hays State earned the No. 1 seed in Super Region 3 to make its first NCAA Playoff appearance since 1995.

The Bearcats edged the Tigers by one point overall in the coaches poll, though the Tigers received one more first-place vote than the Bearcats. In the media poll, the Bearcats received seven more points overall. First-place votes were very tight, like the coaches poll, with the Bearcats edging the Tigers by one.

Central Missouri earned two first-place votes in the coaches poll and six first-place votes in the media poll. The Mules took the No. 3 spot in both polls. Pittsburg State ranked fourth in both polls, even garnering a first-place vote in the media poll. Emporia State and Central Oklahoma shared fifth place in coaches poll, but ESU edged UCO in the media poll for the No. 5 spot.

The Tigers ranked fifth in both preseason polls last year before going on to outperform their predicted finish and win the MIAA Championship. Preseason polls are just predictions and mean nothing once the teams get the season started on August 30. The first game of the season will be a big match-up in regards to the predicted finish when Fort Hays State plays host to Central Missouri in Hays.

Several key players return this year for the Tigers in their quest to defend the MIAA crown. On the offensive side of the ball, the Tigers return six players with All-MIAA credentials to their credit. Senior quarterback Jacob Mezera guides the offense for a third straight year, entering 2018 with 5,377 passing yards and 42 passing touchdowns in his career. Joining Mezera as a two-time all-conference honoree is junior Matt Wendelberger, who is key as both a blocker and pass receiver for the Tigers. Charles Tigner returns at running back, looking to shoulder more reps carrying the ball. He ran for 631 yards on just 92 carries last year, averaging 6.9 yards per attempt to complement All-America running back Kenneth Iheme. Layne Bieberle is the top returning receiver from last year, who had 40 catches for 484 yards last year. Harley Hazlett had a solid first year with the Tigers with 273 receiving yards and 78 rushing yards. Pat Kelly is the top returning lineman at left tackle. He received All-MIAA Third Team honors as a redshirt freshman.

The Tigers return seven starters on the defensive side of the ball. Six of the seven have All-MIAA honors to their credit. Wyatt Parker is the only returning starter on the defensive line from last year. Nathan Shepherd is a big loss at defensive tackle, the first Tiger selected in the NFL Draft since 1987 by going in the Third Round to the New York Jets, but Parker also had a big 2017 season with 58 tackles and 2.5 sacks from the other defensive tackle position. Senior Jose Delgado, an All-America selection last season with 107 tackles and 3.5 sacks, returns to lead a Tiger defense that allowed just 15.3 points per game last season. Delgado is a two-time All-MIAA selection. Kolt Trachsel also returns at linebacker after recording 55 tackles last year. At bandit back, senior Doyin Jibowu and junior Tanner Hoekman return after combining for 148 tackles last year. Jibowu led the team in interceptions with five, earning his first All-America selection. Connor Shedeed returns to his free safety post at the back of the Tiger defense. He finished with 75 tackles last season. Aquil Knowles returns at cornerback, posting 45 tackles and 11 pass breakups last season.

See the 2018 MIAA Preseason Polls below.

Coaches Poll
1. Northwest Missouri (4) – 103
2. Fort Hays State (5) - 102
3. Central Missouri (2) - 96
4. Pittsburg State - 81
T5. Central Oklahoma - 67
T5. Emporia State - 67
7. Washburn - 63
8. Lindenwood - 46
9. Missouri Western - 40
10. Nebraska Kearney - 30
11. Northeastern State - 19
12. Missouri Southern - 12

Media Poll
1. Northwest Missouri (14) - 382
2. Fort Hays State (13) - 375
3. Central Missouri (6) - 349
4. Pittsburg State (1) - 311
5. Emporia State - 243
6. Central Oklahoma - 229
7. Washburn - 223
8. Missouri Western - 171
9. Lindenwood - 160
10. Nebraska Kearney - 98
11. Northeastern State - 66
12. Missouri Southern - 45