There was no point for Anthony Abenoja to be at the hastily-called team meeting almost three years ago at Blue Valley High.
“I was a senior and I was done playing football there, so there was really no need,” Abenoja said. “So I just went to basketball practice … and after awhile I started to see all the faces of the football players coming into the gym and I was like, ‘Why are you guys so mad?’ ”
After 25 years as football coach at Blue Valley — and four Class 5A titles — Steve Rampy had just delivered the news to his team that he was leaving to become the offensive coordinator at Pittsburg State.
Abenoja did his best to commiserate with his friends, but quickly found his way to the office where Rampy was holding court with his assistants.
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“I couldn’t help smiling at that point,” Abenoja said. “And I said, ‘Coach, I think this is going to be a good opportunity … for the both of us.’ And they all started laughing.
“I had no idea if (Pittsburg State) even wanted me at that point. I just knew if (Rampy) was going, I wanted to be there, too.”
In Abenoja, Pittsburg State – and Rampy – saw the future.
Thursday, the Gorillas officially hand the keys to their offense to the 6-foot-3, 218-pound sophomore quarterback when they open up their NCAA Division II championship defense at MIAA newcomer Northeastern (Okla.) State. Abenoja backed up senior Zac Dickey last season and threw for 264 yards and three touchdowns on 15-of-29 passing.
“(Abenoja) is all in, and he’s somebody who has a real passion for the game, for life in general,” Rampy said. “He works hard and he’s a joy to be around – I think the biggest evidence is that his teammates elected him captain.”
Despite his lack of starts, Abenoja is a veteran in the program after redshirting in 2010 – playing scout team quarterback against current defensive stars like linebacker Nate Dreiling and defensive end Gus Toca.
“Sometimes they had the green light to hit me, and some days if they were just mad they’d just go ahead and do it anyway,” Abenoja said, laughing.
The return of All-America wide receiver John Brown (2,201 all-purpose yards, 15 touchdowns) and wide receiver Andrew Castaneda (441 receiving yards, two touchdowns) should help ease the transition. As should the return of staring offensive tackle Cody Holland (6-foot-6, 337 pounds), an All-MIAA pick, and starting center Aaron Kolich (6-2, 275).
Rampy’s son, Luke, is the Gorillas’ third wide receiver.
“(Abenoja) has got a great arm, long routes or short routes the ball is right where you want it,” Castaneda said. “The fans want to know how he’s going to react the first time he gets hit in the mouth but I’ve seen his work ethic and how he prepares. I have a lot of confidence in him.”
Briceton Wilson and Jason Spradling are both returners at running back, although Rampy said as many as four backs could see action.
“We feel like John Brown could be one of the most exciting players in all of Division II,” Rampy said. “And I think (Brown) might overshadow Andrew Castaneda a little bit because he’s so good.”
The wild card in the offense – and what was the strongest part of Dickey’s game – will be Abenoja’s ability to run the ball. Dickey led the team with 1,305 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns.
“(Abenoja) has got the speed and the size to run, and I don’t think he’ll back down from that at all,” Rampy said. “I’ve gotten on him pretty good over the years, so I know he’s thick-skinned. Something happens to him, he bounces back.”