By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
The message is clear for the Pittsburg State Gorillas: There is no time for slow starts or thoughts of last year.
When approximately 140 players begin practice today in defense of Pitt State’s 2011 national title, coaches and team leaders say they’ll make sure they do so with a spring in their step.
“You have to hit the ground running and that’s what I’m always telling the younger guys,” senior defensive end Gus Toca said. “It’s so important to get off to a good start.
“We still have the drive and that’s the message we’re going to relay to all the young guys. We haven’t done anything. It’s a whole new year.”
The Gorillas report for testing this morning before suiting up for their first practice tonight at 7. They’ll then practice at 7 a.m. from Friday through Monday.
“The first few days it is extremely important that we are very efficient with our time and we have to be smart because of the weather and the heat,” Pitt State coach Tim Beck said. “You don’t want to get anybody hurt ... but yet you’ve got to push them to build that mental toughness and mental focus that you need throughout the season.”
The Gorillas return six players on each side of the ball who started at least five games last season.
Their biggest losses on offense came on the line and at quarterback, where sophomore Anthony Abenoja will replace Zac Dickey.
But plenty of star power returns, especially on defense with Toca and 2011 National Defensive Player of the Year Nate Dreiling back.
“We’ve got a chance to be real special on defense,” Beck said. “Our defensive line, we feel, has a chance to be really good and then you’ve got the Defensive Player of the Year behind them.
“We’ve got some talent, but how they play as a team and how they play as a defense, that is yet to be seen. We have a lot of work to do between now and Aug. 30.”
That’s what makes these first weeks of practice so crucial.
“August camp is huge for molding the team together ... just getting to know who can play what parts and how everyone fits together,” Dreiling said. “It will be interesting to see how the next couple weeks go, but I’m looking forward to it.”
The Gorillas open their season at new MIAA member Northeastern State in Tahlequah, Okla. The home opener, on Sept. 8, will be against another newcomer, Central Oklahoma.