Strong support from fans, community help lift Fort Hays State football team to new heights

By Diane Gasper-O’Brien
University Relations and Marketing
HAYS, Kan. – A collective cheer went up from the crowd in Gross Memorial Coliseum Sunday afternoon when fans saw "Fort Hays State University" pop up on the new interactive scoreboard with the numeral 1 before its name.

But the FHSU basketball teams were nowhere in sight.

While both the Tiger men's and women's basketball squads have each played two games this year, it’s still football season at Fort Hays State as well.

Following a perfect 11-0 season, the Tigers learned Sunday at a viewing of the selection show in GMC that they are the top seed in Super Region 3 for the 2017 NCAA Division II Football Playoffs.

That’s a lot to say in one breath, but it sure is a sweet sound, says anyone associated with FHSU football.

“Fort Hays State football is the talk of the town,” said Mike Karl, a former FHSU football player who has lived in Hays for nearly 50 years. “Even people who haven’t really been associated with Fort Hays football are talking about it. It’s such a positive thing for our university, a great thing for the entire community.”

While working their way through a grueling schedule in the MIAA – widely known as one of the top two Division II conferences in the country – the Tigers have drawn fans to Lewis Field Stadium in droves.

A new tailgating program with reserved spots for the entire season, implemented for the 2017 season, has been well received. Game attendance for the NCAA Division II era of Tiger athletics has far surpassed the former record for home games. Average attendance this season is 4,800, with a season-high 6,875 for Homecoming.

No one might be more thankful for those numbers than Chris Brown, the Tigers’ head coach, who is well aware of the “12th-man” effect on his team.

“Our fans are a huge part of our success at Lewis Field,” Brown said. “Our players feed off their energy and excitement. They want to do anything they can to win games for the university, the Hays community and for each other.”

The Tigers hope to give fans something to cheer about for weeks to come. Their first playoff game is set for 1 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 25 – two days after Thanksgiving – at Lewis Field Stadium. Ticket information can be found at fhsuathletics.com.

Brown said the team has plenty to be thankful for this year, making the Division II playoffs for only the third time ever and the first time since 1995, when many of this year’s players weren’t even born.

“Our fan support has been tremendous this year,” Brown said. “We really appreciate the support from our Tiger fans and the atmosphere they bring to Lewis Field.”

The team’s success not only has helped boost attendance at home games. It also has helped put a lot of black and gold in the stands at road games.

About 500 FHSU fans were in attendance in Maryville, Mo., on Nov. 4 as the Tigers pulled out an exciting 13-12 victory over two-time defending champion Northwest Missouri State University. It was Brown’s first win over Northwest Missouri State since he took over as the Tigers’ head coach before the 2011 season, and it clinched FHSU’s first MIAA football title.

The scene on the Bearcats’ field following the game was full of electricity as fans took photos of the team and its new MIAA championship trophy. Many of those fans traveled the 300-plus miles to Maryville for the game, and many more were from the strong FHSU alumni base in and around the Kansas City area.

Some of them were former players of Brown’s who helped build the foundation for returning a winning tradition to FHSU. Before Brown took over, the program recorded just one winning season in six years. Under Brown, the Tigers improved their record by one victory in each of the first five years and have advanced to postseason play three years running.

“We never imagined they would get to this point this fast,” said Layton Hickel, who was a senior in Brown’s first season as FHSU, then served as a graduate assistant coach for the Tigers for two years. “As a former football player, this has just blown my mind.”

Hickel now works and coaches at a high school in Independence, Mo., and he attended both the game in Maryville and the one vs. Missouri Western State University in St. Joseph in October.

“My wife and I are both Fort Hays grads,” Hickel said, “so this is really special.”

About 400 more fans watched the game vs. Northwest Missouri State at a watch party at Big Creek Crossing in Hays. The game was live streamed onto a large screen in the former Midwest Drug business space.

Nancy Stramel from Hays, a fan who couldn’t make the trip to Maryville, said the watch party was the next best thing to being there in person.

“It was decorated with balloons and posters, and we had great temperature and great seats,” said Stramel, a longtime season ticket holder at Lewis Field Stadium. “It was great to be with a whole group, cheering on the Tigers.”

Melissa Dixon – executive director of the Hays Convention and Visitors Bureau, which sponsored the event – said another such watch party might be organized for an away playoff game.

But that will be a while. If the Tigers keep winning, they will be at home for at least two more games, and possibly one more before heading to Kansas City, Mo., for the national championship game on Dec. 16.

Whether it be in Lewis Field Stadium, some field far away from Hays or live-streaming it in their living room, the importance of that kind of fan support is not lost on Brown or his players.

“Without their encouragement and support,” Brown said, “none of this would be possible.”

Running back Kenneth Iheme, in his sixth year with the Tiger program, agreed.

“When we were down 17-0 to Pittsburg State on Homecoming, I was looking at the crowd and thinking, ‘All these people are here to see us win. We can’t let them down.’ ”

Iheme and the Tigers made a comeback and won that game – and the next five games as well en route to their perfect regular season.

“We definitely have our fans and the crowd behind us,” Iheme said. “We know they’re here for a reason, and it helps us try harder.”

Karl, who played for the Tigers in the late 1960s and early ’70s, has followed the Tigers ever since. His son, Scott, was a part of the last FHSU team that qualified for the Division II playoffs in 1995.

“This is so much fun right now,” Karl said. “I wake up on Monday morning and can’t wait until Saturday to get here. It’s been a long time since I’ve felt that way.”

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