The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

Sports

August 31, 2013

PSU's Abenoja learns from 2012 season

PITTSBURG, Kan. — Anthony Abenoja is bent over, tying his all-white cleats and thinking.

It’s late in the day, almost 8 p.m., and he’s already packed a week’s worth of activity — test preparation, classes, leadership meeting — into the daylight hours.

Now the second-year Pittsburg State quarterback is on the sideline of Carnie Smith Stadium — the only place most of Pittsburg’s 20,000 residents know him from — ready to grind out another workout.

He has just been asked what he learned from last season, when he led the Gorillas to a 7-3 finish — a solid campaign at some schools, but a major disappointment at Pitt State, especially coming off a national championship season.

“A lot. I took a lot from last year,” he said. “There’s a lot of expectations and a lot of things going on outside of the field and I realized that you can never focus on that. You can hear it, but you can’t pay attention to it.”

A lot was expected from Abenoja, even before he became the starting quarterback. In 2011, as a freshman, some fans wondered aloud on message boards and social media if he could push aside senior Zac Dickey for the starting job.

He didn’t, of course, and Dickey led the Gorillas to the 2011 national title. But that didn’t quell the hopes that the strong-armed Abenoja would sling the Gorillas back into title contention in 2012.

“Last year, even before the season started, people were expecting to go back to Florence, Ala.,” he said, referring to the home of the NCAA Division II championship. “As a team we just walked on to the field and came to practice acting like we already had our ticket to Alabama.

“We learned that no matter how good we are or how talented we are, That doesn’t matter. When you cross that white line, the game has to be played and anybody can win.”

It wasn’t that Abenoja’s numbers weren’t good in 2012. The 6-foot-3, 210-pounder set a school record with 233 passing yards per game, throwing for 2,330 yards and 15 touchdowns. Even his stats in Pitt State’s three losses weren’t a concern — 223 yards and three touchdowns against Northwest Missouri, 225 and a score against Western and 303 yards and two scores against Lindenwood.

In Abenoja’s own words, he just didn’t come up big when he needed to.

“Answering the call. When things are going rough, I have to be there for the guys,” he said. “And last year, I probably didn’t do that as well as I should have.”

Part of that, he said, was simply not being able, as a sophomore, to immediately grasp the leadership role, especially after it had been used to perfection by Dickey.

“It was really hard for me as a sophomore to be a leader,” he said. “Especially after the great leader Zac Dickey was, it was hard to follow that up. I learned a lot from Zac Dickey and how he led the team. I’m going to take what I learned from him and what I learned from last year.”

The 2013 Abenoja, head coach Tim Beck said, has a new sense of confidence.

True, Abenoja has never lacked a confident side. But now he feels ready to accept his role. He feels ready to be the big man on campus.

“He’s very poised right now,” Beck said. “You can just tell by his posture that he’s more confident that he was a year ago at this time.

“Going through some of those experiences, good and bad, from last year, all that makes a more confident guy.”

The Gorillas hope Abenoja can show the same kind of improvement that Dickey showed from his junior year, when he spit time with Jeff Smith, to his senior season. Another example is Missouri Western’s Travis Partridge, who took his lumps as a sophomore before leading the Griffons to the league title last year.

“If they’re just getting games under their belt, the next year there is a huge amount of confidence,” Beck said. “It’s been proved in this conference. I’ve seen it happen several times.

“We feel like he’s done everything he can to give himself the best chance he can.”

Abenoja says he feels the same way. He says the lessons he learned last season have made him a better quarterback and a better leader.

“The year before, I was kind of in Dickey’s shadow,” he said. “Nobody looked at me as a starting quarterback. I didn’t have to take on that role. As a sophomore I had to take on that role whether I was ready for it or not.

“Now, I’m ready for it.”

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