Picked to finish fifth in the MIAA, the Pittsburg State football team will host Delta State on Saturday in the NCAA Division II semifinals, just one win away from putting themselves in an unthinkable spot … playing for a national title one year after going 6-6 and two years after posting the team’s first losing record in over 3 decades.
I was at the Gorillas’ 41-16 quarterfinal win over Northwest Missouri on Saturday, the third time I’ve watched them play this year. Two years ago, if you remember, this program was bottoming out.
Here’s 5 reasons Pittsburg State was able to come back from the dead:
1. THE CHOSEN ONE
There is one recruit that has changed the fortunes of Pittsburg State’s football team more than any other in the last decade — and that’s MIAA defensive player of the year Nate Dreiling, a sophomore linebacker from Hutchinson High. The son of Hutch High coach Randy Dreiling, redshirting Nate in 2009 was a stroke of genius by former PSU coach Chuck Broyles. He’s become the dominant D2 defensive player in the country in two years and is the undisputed leader of this team. Last year, he led the nation with 160 tackles. This year, he has 106 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and SIX interceptions. As he goes, so go the Gorillas.
2. THE BUILT-IN ADVANTAGE
It’s hard to blame PSU fans from abandoning Carnie Smith Stadium in droves … the product on the field was terrible for a couple of years. They weren’t worth watching. You hear the argument about not being a bandwagon fan or whatever, but what it boils down to is an implicit agreement between the program and its followers to keep things on the up and up. When they were losing, it’s because things weren’t being done the right way. No misfortune, no bad luck … just bad football. Now, with things back on the right track, PSU has a home-field advantage unmatched on its level. Also a big reason why the Gorillas are hosting their third straight playoff game.
3. HOMETOWN BOY
His game is dissected by the PSU fanbase more than any other PSU player, and senior QB Zac Dickey has emerged from some brutal criticism to become one of the better signal-callers in the MIAA. He was always a great runner, but it wasn’t until this year that he became a sufficiently good passer. Growing up in Pittsburg, the Colgan product was there for most of the Gorillas’ big moments at home growing up, so he understands the tradition. He also understands the scrutiny and the way he’s handled it has been impressive. Two seasons ago he was a wide receiver. One year ago he became the full-time starter. This year, he’s become a star.
4. WHO IS JOHN BROWN?
The sophomore wide receiver/return man from Homestead, Fla., took a circuitous route to Pittsburg, but it seems like he’s finally found a home for his unique talents. He bounced around from another D2 school, Mars Hill, in 2008, to out of football in 2009 to redshirting at Coffeyville last year (thank Darian Dulin, Gorillas fans) and then finally to Pitt. He’s racked up 1,924 all-purpose yards and 16 TDs this season and not trying to get him the ball in the first half of their only loss this year — Nov. 5 to Washburn — probably cost the Gorillas an undefeated season. Incredibly fast, amazing hands and a knack for the big play. That they have him and Dreiling for two more seasons almost isn’t fair.
5. BECK ANSWERS THE CALL
Tim Beck was the right man for the job. Maybe the only man for the job. He came to Pittsburg in 1985 and dude never left – this is his 25th year on the PSU coaching staff and he’s invested in the community like you wouldn’t believe. His no-nonsense approach appeals to the fans, and can rub us media types the wrong way sometimes but he has breathed life into a program that was dangerously close from slipping into irrelevancy.
PS. I swear I’m going to start blogging about basketball … someday.