By Ryan Atkinson
Globe Sports Writer
Tim Beck and the Pittsburg State Gorillas say it feels like just last month when they were hoisting their national championship trophy in Florence, Ala.
They say they don’t remember an offseason that went by as quickly as this one.
Ready or not, the new season is here.
The Gorillas travel tonight to Tahlequah, Okla., to open defense of their MIAA and national titles against Northeastern State at 6 at Doc Wadley Stadium.
“We feel like we’re prepared,” Beck said on Tuesday. “But you just don’t know until that first game and you find out where you’re at.”
This first game — like last year’s season opener at Missouri Western — should provide a stern test for the Gorillas.
Northeastern State — one of four schools playing their first MIAA game this week — is coming off a 7-5 season that ended with a Mineral Water Bowl loss. The RiverHawks return six starters on offense, including quarterback Johnny Deaton, and eight on defense.
Deaton threw for 2,520 yards and 26 touchdowns after being given the starting job following NSU’s 1-3 start. He hit Jermain Sherman 36 times for 541 yards and five touchdowns and Jahmai Coleman 29 times for 524 yards and three scores.
“We saw him play a couple times last year and he can get rid of the ball extremely fast,” Beck said. “He has a good, strong arm.”
Deaton signed out of Sand Springs, Okla., to play at Oklahoma State before transferring to Northeastern State.
“We saw him play in high school as well,” Beck said. “We’ve got several kids in the game who played at Sand Springs. We’ll have our hands full with him.”
Gus Toca and the rest of the Pitt State defensive line hope to recreate the success they had last season against top-ranked quarterbacks. Washburn’s Dane Simoneau was the only quarterback to hang a loss on Pitt State, but the Gorillas got revenge in the playoffs.
“We saw Dane Simoneau pick us apart the first game against them,” Toca said. “We have to get some pressure on (Deaton) and get some hands in his face.”
Toca will have to get past Michael Bowie, a 6-foot-5, 320-pounder who transferred from Oklahoma State over the summer.
“That’s fun. I always like a big challenge,” said Toca, who had a team-high 11 sacks and 19 tackles for loss last season. “We’re all competitors, so we’re up for anything.
“They’re a great team with a great O-line … it’s going to be a great first game.”
Tonight will mark the first test for Pitt State sophomore quarterback Anthony Abenoja, who takes over for Zac Dickey.
Abenoja, who played at Blue Valley High School under current Pitt State offensive coordinator Steve Rampy, got some playing time early in the season last year, but will be making his first start.
“He’s a sophomore, but he’s a poised sophomore,” said senior Aaron Kolich, who will be protecting Abenoja at his center position. “ He knows what he’s doing and he’s been under Rampy since high school. He’ll do just fine.”
Notes: The Gorillas will be donning new threads this season, a relatively simple mix of classic and current. They’ll be going with white jerseys and white pants tonight. NSU, meanwhile, will wear alternate black uniforms … Beck said the Gorillas want to recreate, as closely as possible, their Thursday game day trip to Missouri Western from last year, so they’ll leave at 11 a.m., drive to Tulsa and stop for lunch before heading east to Tahlequah. … Rumors began in Tahlequah that the game was sold out. NSU put out a statement on Wednesday shooting that rumor down. Doc Wadley Stadium can accommodate 12,000 fans. NSU’s season average from last year was less that half of that.