The talk of last year’s NCAA Division II national championship dragged through the month of December and into the dreary, early-morning workouts the Pittsburg State football team gathered for when they came back for school in January.
As the months and workouts progressed, however, the talk inside and outside of the program began to transition into something else entirely.
“For a while, we’d go out to eat in big groups and there were a lot of pats on the back and ‘good job’ and all that,” Pitt State center Aaron Kolich said. “But now, people want to know what we’re going to do with the upcoming season and it’s strange because we don’t really know how to respond to that. It’s the same thing we ask ourselves.”
Coming off the school’s first national title since 1991, expectations have been different for the Gorillas from the moment they started lifting weights again this winter. Today’s spring game is the last official step before the team gathers again on Aug. 9 to begin training camp and the task of defending their title with a likely preseason No. 1 ranking hanging around their necks.
It’s quite a different task from last year at this time, when Pittsburg State was coming off a 6-6 season and few people, inside or out of the program, realized what the team was capable of.
Last month, the Gorillas received their national championship rings. The school even made DVDs and a commemorative magazine – “The Road to Florence” – to remember the title.
“It was such a great ride and there were so many great memories, I think it’s still OK to still enjoy it a little bit,” said junior linebacker Nate Dreiling, the reigning MIAA defensive player of the year. “Winning a title was such a blessing … I still am not sure exactly how to put it into words.
“The important thing is you can’t take any of that with you on the field. That’s where it will come back to bite you.”
The biggest question mark surrounding the program this spring has been replacing senior quarterback Zac Dickey, a Pittsburg native who ran for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns and threw for 2,290 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2011.
Anthony Abenoja, a 6-foot-3, 218-pound sophomore, seems the likely candidate to take over under center after backing up Dickey last season.
“Zac leaves some pretty big shoes to fill,” Kolich said. “I don’t care who you are … that’s going to be a tough guy to replace. But we have a couple of guys who have worked hard to get their shot.”