Pittsburg State comes off a 10-2 season, one which ended in a 90-28 Mineral Water Bowl victory over Southwest Minnesota.
The Gorillas cost themselves a playoff appearance with a flat performance against a fired-up Missouri Southern in the season finale, a 35-21 loss in which the Lions took it to the nationally-ranked Gorillas right from the opening whistle.
"The nice thing was that we still got to play a game after that," Pitt State head coach Tim Beck said. "We were able to finish up on a positive note.
"Obviously, that day (Missouri Southern) was a very tough day. Both sides of the ball, it was tough. Couldn't get anything going offensively, left our defense on the field way too much and they were able to take advantage of it as they can do and grind some clock. Next thing we knew we got behind and had a hard time getting back out of it.
"You've got to spend time looking at the positive of things and our offseason was really, really good. We ended up on a good note, we had a fun game in the bowl game and our kids enjoyed it, had a great time and played hard. You always worry about a letdown after a game like Missouri Southern but we did not have that and so, had a great offseason and I know our leaders here in Keeston (Terry) and Anthony (Abenoja) and our captains, they do a good job of making sure our kids are on task during the summer."
Pitt State graduated all-time leading tackler Nate Dreiling and all-time leading receiver John Brown, as well as rock solid offensive lineman Cody Holland, but the Gorillas return several All-MIAA performers in junior running back Jeff Seybold, junior defensive lineman Taye Irvin, senior defensive back Keeston Terry, senior defensive back De'Vante Bausby, senior linebacker Tyler Disney, senior kicker Connor Frazell, senior offensive lineman Tyler Smith, senior quarterback Anthony Abenoja, senior defensive lineman Avery Adair, senior defensive back Aries Herrion, senior defensive back Jason Peete and senior offensive lineman Ollie Venegas, a large talent pool of upperclassmen.
"To answer one of the questions that will be asked right off the top," Beck said. "We lost two impact players from last season in John Brown and Nate Dreiling. They were outstanding players, outstanding young men and everybody wants to know how you replace John Brown, how you replace Nate Dreiling and you don't. You absolutely don't replace those guys. They were tremendous players.
"I told somebody earlier, I think that the fact having those guys on the team, though, and the preparation that they had week-to-week in the film room and on the field is definitely something that we coach but it's something that players see and it obviously carries over and raises the level of play on your team on both sides of the ball. John Brown was a very talented young man but his work ethic was outstanding, so that carries over into this season."
This year's seniors have the opportunity to join last year's in winning their final game four consecutive years, a feat which had been last accomplished in the 1930s.
The Gorillas already have many of the building blocks necessary for another successful campaign.
Like Brown and Dreiling, Abenoja should reshape the record book as a senior.
Abenoja ranks second in career yards (5,548), second in single season yards (2,954), first in single game yards (442 vs. Lincoln), second in career touchdowns (48), third in career attempts (598), first in career completions (367) and second in career completion percentage (.6137).
Abenoja enters his third full season behind center — last season, he passed for nearly 3,000 yards, 30 touchdowns and only five interceptions, while rushing for a second-best 340 yards and five TDs on 109 carries.
"He's always been very talented," Beck said. "He has a tremendously strong arm. Was a baseball pitcher in high school and sometimes, throws it like a baseball. He can throw the ball hard and has really developed his game over the last couple years.
"He's got great work ethic. You can't get him out of Coach Rampy's (offensive coordinator Steve Rampy) office. He's always eager to learn more and more and that's the kind of guy you want at that position. When other people on the offensive side of the ball see that your starting quarterback is willing to sacrifice and do those things and he's always on time, he's always early.
"You can count on him, he's accountable, he's dependable, he's reliable and a lot of people don't know but he played part of the year last year injured and was able to have surgery after the season. Now, hopefully going into his senior year with two years under his belt, he has high expectations for himself and we know we'll have quality play out of Tony."
As starting quarterback, Abenoja and the Gorillas have missed the playoffs the last two seasons following their national championship season.
"We want to get in a state-of-mind where we want to fight every play and really give it our all every play because we took some plays off last year," Abenoja said. "Offensively, we left the defense on the field too long. We can't put our defense in that type of situation so hopefully, offensively, we'll do better this year."
Abenoja will be helped out by Seybold, who rushed for 1,434 yards and 22 touchdowns on 201 carries last season. Seybold took over featured back after splitting carries early in the season with Steven Sullivan and Dre Holman.
"It's great to have Jeff back there and we have another guy coming back, Solomon Watkins," Abenoja said. "It's really nice to have both of them back there."
On the defensive side, Pitt State returns its second, third and fourth leading tacklers in Disney (101), Terry (64) and Deron Washington (57); its leading sack artist in Adair (six); and its two leading pass interceptors in Bausby and Herrion (three).
"We have a lot of experience coming back," Terry said. "I know we lost Nate but I think we've got a few guys that can fill that role, me being one of them. I think Tyler Disney's going to play a big role at the linebacker position. De'Vante Bausby, I think is a really great corner for our team and I think we have the potential to be as good as we were last year, hopefully a little bit better."
Pitt State held five opponents under 20 points last season.
NEW WEBSITE DESIGN
Pitt State Athletics unveiled its new website design on Tuesday.
"We are excited to offer the new look to pittstategorillas.com," Dan Wilkes said in a media release. "We have many stake holders in the site from fans and alumni, to prospective recruits and media, to general users. We are proud to be the nation's only Gorillas, and we think this design clearly showcases that fact.
"I'd like to thank Heidi Johnson from our athletics communications staff for playing the lead role in the updates and transition to the new site. We appreciate her efforts and we look forward to continue to grow the site as we showcase one of the premiere NCAA Division II institutions in the country and highlight the accomplishments of our Gorilla student-athletes and teams online."
PSU, KKOW AGREE ON EXTENSION
Pitt State athletics director Jim Johnson announced Wednesday that KKOW Radio (860 AM) will be the Gorillas' flagship station three more years after Pitt State signed a three-year contract extension with American Media Investments.
"We are excited to be able to reach an agreement on a three-year contract with AMI," Johnson said in a media release. "We have enjoyed a great partnership over the years and have worked to enhance that relationship as we can."
Eddie Lomshek, a 17-year KKOW veteran, will host the Tim Beck Radio Show and remain the "Voice of the Gorillas" this season. For the football broadcast, Lomshek will be joined by new color analyst Zac Dickey and sideline man B.J. Harris.
"We are pleased and excited to continue our relationship with Pitt State through football and basketball broadcasts," Lomshek said. "Gorilla Athletics is one of the staples of our stations and to be able to continue to serve as the broadcast voice of the Gorillas is exciting for us.
"We value our relationship with Pitt State coaches and administrators, and it's great to know that will continue to grow with this extension."
Sept. 6 — vs. Northeastern State
Sept. 11 — at Lindenwood
Sept. 20 — at Washburn
Sept. 27 — vs. Fort Hays State
Oct. 4 — at Missouri Western
Oct. 11 — vs. Emporia State
Oct. 18 — at Northwest Missouri
Oct. 25 — vs. Nebraska-Kearney
Nov. 1 — at Missouri Southern
Nov. 8 — vs. Central Missouri
Nov. 15 — at Central Oklahoma