KANSAS CITY, Mo. (FHSU release) Following back-to-back MIAA Championships in 2017 and 2018, Fort Hays State Football will enter the 2019 as the favorite among MIAA coaches in the preseason polls released on Wednesday (July 31) at MIAA Football Media Day. The Tigers were slated No. 2 in the Media Poll behind Northwest Missouri State, the team they shared the MIAA Championship with last year.
This is the first time the Tigers have topped either poll since joining the MIAA in 2006. Last year FHSU was No. 2 in both polls and Northwest Missouri State was No. 1, but this snaps a six-year streak of Northwest Missouri State topping the preseason poll from head coaches around the conference.
The coaches poll was close once again this year with Fort Hays State coming out on top by two points. FHSU received six first-place votes and 114 total voting points, while Northwest Missouri State received five first-place votes and 112 total voting points. Fort Hays State and Northwest Missouri State were the only MIAA schools to play in the NCAA Playoffs last year. Pittsburg State received the one remaining first-place vote and ranked third with 97 points. Central Oklahoma, a bowl game participant for each of the last two years, ranked fourth with 90 points.
Northwest Missouri State received the majority of first-place votes in the media poll, picked No. 1 in 32 of the 40 polls submitted. Fort Hays State topped seven polls of media members. The Bearcats and Tigers were the only two programs to receive over 400 total voting points with 471 and 433 respectively. Pittsburg State ranked No. 3 with 378 points, Central Missouri ranked No. 4 with 336 points, and Central Oklahoma ranked No. 5 with 313 points.
2019 MIAA Preseason Coaches Poll
1. Fort Hays State (6) - 114 points
2. Northwest Missouri (5) - 112 points
3. Pittsburg State (1) - 97 points
4. Central Oklahoma - 90 points
5. Central Missouri - 80 points
6. Emporia State - 73 points
7. Missouri Western - 57 points
8. Washburn - 54 points
9. Nebraska Kearney - 46 points
10. Missouri Southern - 34 points
11. Northeastern State - 23 points
12. Lincoln - 12 points
Coaches are not allowed to vote for their own team
2019 MIAA Preseason Media Poll
1. Northwest Missouri (32) - 471 points
2. Fort Hays State (7) - 433 points
3. Pittsburg State - 378 points
4. Central Missouri - 336 points
5. Central Oklahoma - 313 points
6. Emporia State - 264 points
7. Missouri Western - 245 points
8. Washburn - 234 points
9. Nebraska Kearney - 194 points
10. Missouri Southern (1) - 120 points
11. Northeastern State - 79 points
12. Lincoln - 52 points
Fort Hays State returns nine of its 11 starters on offense from the 2018 season, including five that received All-MIAA honors. Junior offensive lineman Amari Angram-Boldin was a second-team selection, while third team selections went to seniors Layne Bieberle (wide receiver), Matt Wendelberger (tight end), and Charles Tigner (running back). Senior Harley Hazlett (wide receiver) garnered an honorable mention selection, but could be one of the top all-around offensive threats in the conference this year after an FHSU-record 91 receptions in 2018 to go with 904 receiving yards, 60 rushing yards, and 132 kick return yards. Bieberle was close behind Hazlett in receiving yards with 894 on 57 catches, and he earned two all-conference honors for the year after getting an honorable mention nod as a punt returner (304 return yards). Wendelberger had a big year of 502 yards on 33 catches and Tigner continued to be a threat in both the run and pass game with 778 yards rushing and 217 yards receiving. Sophomore quarterback Chance Fuller also returns after receiving starts late in the 2018 season and finishing with 1,185 passing yards.
On defense, the Tigers return four starters led by All-MIAA Third-Team pick Sterling Swopes on the defensive line. Honorable mention status went to linebacker Kolt Trachsel and defensive back Tanner Hoekman, while Sheldon Schmidt also returns on the defensive line. Trachsel, Hoekman, and Schmidt enter their senior year, while Swopes is a junior. Hoekman is the top returning tackler, posting 75 stops last year, while Trachsel finished with 59. Schmidt finished the year with 45 tackles, while Swopes added 41. Swopes is the top returning pass-rush threat after five sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss last year.
The biggest question on defense is how the Tigers fill the shoes of six All-MIAA selections, which included three All-America honorees. The six starters lost to exhaustion of eligibility were MIAA Defensive Player of the Year Jose Delgado (linebacker), Doyin Jibowu (safety), Wyatt Parker (defensive line), Connor Shedeed (safety), Malik Young (defensive line), and Aquil Knowles (cornerback). Jibowu went on to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears, joining Delgado and Parker as All-America selections. Delgado pushed Fort Hays State's streak of producing the MIAA Defensive Player of the Year to three-straight years, finishing with 117 tackles. The six starters lost from last year's team combined for a total of 422 tackles and eight interceptions.
Kicker/punter Dante Brown looks to give the Tigers a boost on special teams once again in 2019. Brown was the NCAA Division II Special Teams Player of the Year by the Don Hansen Football Committee in 2018, while also earning MIAA Special Teams Player of the Year as an all-conference first team selection at both kicker and punter. Brown led Division II in field goals last year with 28, averaging an all-NCAA levels best 2.33 field goals per game. He scored 123 points for the season, but also punted the ball 67 times and averaged 41.4 yards per attempt.
Head coach Chris Brown enters his ninth year guiding the Tigers in 2019. He led the Tigers to postseason game appearances in each of the last four years, twice in bowl games (2015 and 2016) and most recently twice in the NCAA Playoffs (2017 and 2018). Brown was the MIAA Coach of the Year in each of the last two years.