The Return of the Kings
Huey Counts, Jr.
By Greg Grisolano
Posted: December 21, 2011 - 12:00 PM
With apologies to all the folks out there who want to say otherwise, this was no “Cinderella team*.” Cinderella was the girl who had never been to the dance before. She was constantly put upon by her mean step-sisters and domineering step-mother. The whole idea is that she goes from rags to riches. As bad as the last couple of years may have been for this program, particularly in the context of Pitt State’s place as the winningest program in the history of Division II football, this was most certainly not a rags-to-riches tale. If anything, this team’s fairy-tale analogy is "The Return of the King."
It’s a tale of redemption, of the restoration of greatness. They took their destined place on the throne after years of wandering in the woods. This season put the Gorillas back on top.
As some of you may recall, in my first column I talked about how there are three true outcomes in sports when it comes to expectations: a team can either meet them, exceed them, or fail to live up to them.
So what did Pitt State do in a season in which they captured the program’s fourth national title? The simple answer is to say it clearly exceeded the expectations of all but the most fanatical members of Gorilla Nation. But I think the answer is more complex. As we look back on an amazing season, at certain points, it becomes clear that this team did a little bit of all these things. That wild ride is part of what made this season so satisfying from a fan’s perspective.
Let’s look at some highlights:
Week 1: 34-7 road victory at Missouri Western
The Gorillas were coming off a thoroughly dominating win in which the defense held the Griffons to a measly seven points. Some Juco transfer named John Brown returned a kickoff for a touchdown. It was an impressive performance, especially because Missouri Western was one of four teams picked to finish ahead of the Gorillas in preseason polls.
Week 3: 27-26 road victory against Truman State
One of those “Murphy’s Law” games where just about everything that could did go wrong for the Gorillas. Pitt State overcame five first-half turnovers thanks in no small part to another outstanding defensive performance. Quarterback Zac Dickey led the offense downfield in 41 seconds to score the winning touchdown in the game’s final minute to secure the victory. Call it a character-builder for sure, but at the time it did little to instill fan confidence, or foreshadow the success the team was bound for.
Week 5: 38-35 victory against Northwest Missouri in the Fall Classic at Arrowhead X
It became clear following the Gorillas’ stunning upset of Northwest at the Fall Classic that this was a pretty special team. That win raised the ceiling on expectations, and definitely established that this team could, and more importantly should, contend for the MIAA conference title. After a rough first half, the defense clamped down and held the nation’s highest-scoring offense to only a single touchdown. Big plays by Dickey, and Brown (with an assist from Andrew Castaneda) helped fuel the upset of the then-No. 1-ranked Bearcats.
Week 9: 43-25 home loss to Washburn
This was the one point in the season in which I think it’s fair to say the Gorillas didn’t live up to expectations. Pitt State’s momentum definitely got derailed as the Ichabods had their way with the Gorillas at The Jungle. The margin of victory didn’t tell the whole story, as the Gorillas were within striking-distance late in the game. Other than a furious rally to start the fourth quarter, the offense never got going (in part because of Brown’s lack of involvement in the offensive game plan) , and Washburn was able to capitalize on good field position to rack up points. Pitt would get its revenge in a playoff rematch at The Jungle. Brown was huge factor in the rematch, but again so was the defense, harassing Washburn’s Harlon Hill finalist quarterback Dane Simoneau into a 14-of-40 day passing.
Week 15: 41-16 home playoff win against Northwest Missouri
This was the game that really raised the ceiling for the expectations of the 2011 season. Arguably the Gorillas’ most dominant performance (against top-flight competition, no less). The Bearcats jumped out to an early 10-point lead, but Pitt once again came out blazing in the second half and never looked back. This game clearly established Pitt State as a legitimate championship contender, and served as the genesis for the #goingtoDisneyland hashtag. Having exorcised the Northwest demon, not once but twice in the same season sent the message to fans that the Gorillas had what it took to go all the way.
There were plenty of other highlights along the way, from Nate Dreiling’s 18-tackle, 1-sack, 1-pick, 1-fumble performance in the semifinal win against Delta State; Brown’s record-tying five-touchdown performance in the regular season finale win against Missouri Southern; consistent production in the running game by Briceton Wilson, Jason Spradling, Eric Love, and the rest of the Five-Finger-Death-Punch; Spencer Worthington, Gus Toca, J.R. Jones and the rest of the defensive frontline; Paul Robinson’s big blocks on special teams; etc. Early in the season, those plays served to raise the expectations that what we were seeing was something truly special. By the time the team made it to Florence, it was what we had come to expect from them.
*The real “Cinderella” was Pitt’s title-game opponent, Wayne State University. Prior to the 2011 season, the Warriors had never participated in a playoff game. The team suffered three losses during the regular season, and its own coach even admitted he skipped the selection show because he didn’t think his team’s ticket would get punched. They went on to win four-straight road playoff games (total distance traveled more than 7,000 miles) and knocked off the reigning national champion Minnesota-Duluth only to face one of the most historically dominant programs in nation for the championship. Had they pulled out the upset against a (deservedly) favored Gorilla team, Disney would already own the production rights for the film. But midnight came early for the Warriors.
Greg Grisolano is an award-winning reporter and feature writer. He is also a proud alumnus of the Communication Department at Pittsburg State University. You can find him on the TeamKong message boards under the handle “El-Grizo” or email him directly at email@example.com. You can also follow him on Twitter @ElGrizo.