This is your behind the scenes look at Gorilla football’s trip to the national championship. Come along with us and we will keep you up to date on all the Gorilla goings on in Florence, Ala.
– Heidi Johnson, Director of Media Relations & Promotions
Saturday, Dec. 17 – 8 p.m.
Has it sunk in yet Gorilla fans?!? We are National Champions!!! Do you know when it sunk in for me? It was when one of the pilots strapped the National Championship Trophy in its cardboard box in a seat across the aisle from me. Yep! The trophy got its own seat!
The plane back to Pittsburg was fairly, but not the nervous quiet where you are afraid to talk like on the way here. It is more like a satisfied, peaceful calmness. I know for a fact you won’t find one person on the plane without a smile on his or her face right now. The players are definitely chatting, reliving parts of the game and talking about what comes next. And the closer we get to Pittsburg, the louder it gets. Everyone is ready for a big celebration in our town!
How about that football game? I was so nervous, excited and just plain emotional that I was tearing up right before kickoff. We just had to win. It just seemed like there could be no other outcome. After the kickoff and the ensuing touchdown, I was still nervous, but that Gorilla team just does things to calm everyone’s nerves. They probably had a few of their own that they just had to get shaken off.
To be perfectly honest, it is hard to remember many details about the game right now. It’s a lot to take in. I am sure there are many players, coaches and fans that feel the same way. Of course the big plays stand out. Could you tell on TV just how open Bristan Kelley was in the end zone when Zac hit him for that touchdown? What about those special teams? They were FABULOUS today. The defense made many big plays deep in our own territory at crucial points in the game. The offense was able to show just how many weapons they have. The whole team was strong, exciting and just plain good today. Today was grind it out Gorilla Football.
The thing that I liked best about this win, was that it was a complete team win. No one player had to take the team on his shoulders and carry them. They all worked together the whole game. Of course the media will pick out certain players to talk about, or certain plays, but none of those players could have done what they did without the help of someone else. There were great plays on both sides of the ball. I’ve grown up around football my entire life, but watching a team play that you know is as cohesive as these Gorillas are, makes it just that much more fun.
Enough ramblings … how about some fun nuggets from the post-game press conference.
John Brown - It feels good (to win this game). We have talked about it a lot and I promised my brother we would do it.
Zac Dickey – John Brown messaged me on Facebook right after he signed with us and asked me if we would win a National Championship. I told him we would.
Zac Dickey on the touchdown to Bristan Kelley – It was huge to score points before the half. We practice that play everyday and I missed it against Washburn. He was wide open and I missed him. It was a great play call.
Coach Beck – In 91 coaching for (then head coach Chuck) Broyles, I hit a hole in one (on the golf course) two days before I was married. The coaches will tell you I have a swing like Charles Barkley. Then we won the National Championship. That was a great year. We just had to wait 20 years to do it again.
Zac Dickey – This team is like a brotherhood. I am glad to be a part of it. I would go to war for any of these guys.
Coach Beck – I told the players, “Think about this, you guys are 18 or 19-years-old. I have walked that trophy and picture in the office for 20 years. It is time for a new one.”
John Brown – When Coach Beck came and talked to me at Coffeyville, he said I could be another piece of the puzzle to winning a national championship.
Zac Dickey – My dad had a 91 Gorillas National Championship sweatshirt. I remember asking my dad about it and he explained what a National Championship was. My first memory of football is Pitt State football.
Paul Robinson – It was a great feeling knowing that I made a great play. Coach said to make a memory today … I definitely made a memory.
Nate Dreiling – When I saw Aries Herrion running for a touchdown after the blocked kick, I turned to watch Paul immediately to make sure he didn’t cheap shot someone or celebrate too early.
Oh my goodness Gorilla fans!!! What a thrill it was to see all of you lining the streets when we got back into town!!! We went around on the bypass and came into town on the north end. That is one thing these players, coaches and staff won’t forget about the National Championship experience! We saw people from when we turned off the bypass onto Broadway and then clear to campus. The biggest cluster of people was downtown. Everyone wanted to see the National Champions!
There were three kids on the bus I was on, Olivia and Ben Cullen, daughter and son of defensive secondary coach Lance Cullen and senior woman administrator Natalie Cullen, and Blake Wilkes, son of Associate Athletics Director for Marketing and Communication Dan Wilkes and his wife April. Of course the players’ reactions to all the people was cool, but there is nothing like seeing it through the eyes of a child. To them it was a parade, just for the Gorillas and they were getting to be part of hit. Blake asked why all those people were there waving at us.
“They are just happy for the Gorillas,” Dan replied.
“Oh, ok! Come on, Ben we have to wave! Stand up and wave!” Blake yelled at his buddy and they stood near the front of the bus and nearly waved their little hands right off.
We even saw a few people as we continued up Centennial near the mall and then to Rouse and on to the Rec Center. I didn’t know so many people would fit into that space in the Rec Center! The cheers were unbelievable and just kept going and going. Each time a different player would walk through the floors, the cheers just got louder. The team huddled in the middle of the room and Coach Beck made his way up to a podium at the front. Dr. Scott, who was not able to go on the trip because of his duties at graduation, thanked Coach Beck and the team. Coach Beck hoisted that trophy high in the air and a roar went through the crowd. He once again thanked all our fans.
I hope all of you, whether you were one of over the 3500 that came to Florence, or in the group that was in Pittsburg for the send off or the triumphant return, or the many, many more al over the country that cheered us on from afar, you really are very much appreciated. It is hard to do what each and every one of our athletics teams does without the support of our fans. As in any job, it’s hard to do well without the support of the people around you. One thing the Gorillas never doubt is their support! The Gorilla Nation is proud and strong!!!
Thanks for reading this week! I hope you enjoyed reading as much as I enjoyed writing. Stayed tuned to PittStateGorillas.com in the next month. PSU Athletics has some exciting things planned to commemorate this season. What a season it has been!!
One more time, a huge congratulations to Coach Beck, his staff and the entire Gorilla team. Thank you for taking us all along for the ride, and we’ll be glad to do it again any time!
Saturday, Dec. 17, 2011 – 9:30 a.m.
IT’S GAME DAY GORILLA FANS!!! The Champions Walk was amazing! The band and cheerleaders got here just on time to be a part of it! What a thrill! You could tell our players were really taking it in. The one that really stood out to me was Briceton Wilson. He was just grinning from ear to ear like the Cheshire cat.
Right now I am up in the press box, looking at our guys warming up on the field. They are getting loose and soaking up the experience. Across the street is the GorillaFest tent and it is PACKED! I have overheard people in the press box talking about how early Gorilla fans were around the stadium this morning. There is no question that our fans are some of the best and most dedicated in the nation!!
Here’s a little treat for you for game day. Pittsburg State is lucky enough to have four coaches on the current staff who were players in 2004, the last time the Gorillas played in the national championship game. They are Chad Weeks, then junior offensive lineman, now coaching tight ends; then junior defensive lineman Ike Eguae, now coaching defensive line; then senior tight end, now defensive line coach, Ryan Hellwig; and then senior quarterback, now wide receivers and assistant strength coach.
These four coaches have been able to provide invaluable advice to the current Pitt State players, as it wasn’t very long ago they were in the same position. They sat down with me on Friday afternoon both to look back on their experience as players and to talk about what special things they have done to help their current players.
All four players turned coaches, said they didn’t remember a lot about the game, but the thing they did remember most was the hospitality of the people of Florence and being kept busy the entire time they were here.
“I was appreciative of getting here,” Weeks said. “It just doesn’t hit you until a couple weeks later.”
Hellwig and Eguae did remember Weeks making the Sportscenter Top 10 that night after he picked up a fumble, ran with it and then was knocked hard out of bounds. That memory gave them all a little laugh.
The memories are there, but it is more concern for their team that is at the forefront of their minds on the day before the 2011 DII National Championship game.
“For me, I have to understand I am not going to be able to get out there and play. It is hard to tell yourself you are not going to get to play,” Eguae said. “As a coach, I have to look at everything, as a player I had to focus on just a few things. Now, as a coach, I have to know everything, every formation, every play.”
“The good thing is, we have all been here once,” Hellwig said. “We are able to tell them just to strip everything else away and remember that it is just another football game. After the game, you can take all the time you need to absorb all the fluff surrounding it.”
Weeks echoed Hellwig’s sentiments, “You have to look back on it later. It is bigger than the other games, but you can not think of it like that.”
All four coaches said one thing exactly the same. This team is here on a business trip. They still have something great to accomplish.
The coaches can also see some great similarities between the two teams. Both teams had a great chemistry and both had individual players that worked as hard as they could to make something of themselves, like Jon Thomas going from a walk-on to a major player. Coach Philpot pointed out throughout this season even, unproven players have done great things to prove themselves. Tyler Smith and Ollie Venegas have both been able to step up with major contributions on the offensive line, and when Aaron Kolich came back from his injury, it was like he hadn’t missed a step.
“This team is a very mature team,” Hellwig said. “They handle themselves well. Everyone knows their role and no one person is bigger than the team. It is all us and we with these guys. That is not lip service either. It was like that with the 04 team too.”
Philpot expanded a little more on the mentality of his 04 squad. “In 04 nobody wanted to let the other guy down,” Philpot said. “We played hard for each other. You never wanted to be the one to let the guy next to you down. This team is a little different, but the resiliency is similar. In 04, the offense broke records and was in forefront. This year, I think the defense is more in the spotlight. But there are no signs of resentment toward each other. Everyone has a role. When your number is called you have to step up.”
One player that has stepped up, especially in the playoffs, is quarterback Zac Dickey. Although Philpot coaches wide receivers, Dickey has been able to go to him as a mentor who has been in the same position. The two relate well because they have the same will to win and toughness on the field. There is almost an admiration in Philpot’s voice when he talks about Dickey and Dickey has a tremendous amount of respect for Philpot as a player and a coach.
“I have just told Zac the same thing for playoffs and this game that I have been telling him all year,” Philpot said. “Be a facilitator. Be the guy that can distribute the ball to the right person. Know when it’s your turn. Don’t force it, those plays will come. Stay focused as far as this game goes. Embrace it, but remember what you are here for. If you aren’t focused the rest of the team won’t be.”
Zac has definitely been focused. The team is focused and the coaches are most definitely focused. All are able to keep this big game in perspective. Eguae, Hellwig, Philpot and Weeks are an advantage to this team that not many teams are lucky enough to have. Things have to be looking good for the Gorillas!
It’s almost game time. Enjoy it! Whether at Braly Stadium or watching on ESPN, the Gorillas need all our fans today! Your support is like none other.
Friday, Dec. 16 - 2:30 p.m.
Wow, wow, wow!!! This morning was A-MAZE-ING!! I will get to that in a minute, but today I want to work backwards and start with the VIP Sponsors Luncheon.
The team, coaches and some of the athletic department administration visited the Robert M. Guillot University Center on the University of North Alabama campus for the luncheon. Vice presidents from both schools spoke, as did the head coaches and one selected player. The Harlon Hill Trophy winners were introduced one last time before the winner will be announced tonight.
Coach Beck, as always, was graciously thankful to our hosts, but also had some great things to say about our Pittsburg State community. “At Pittsburg State University we feel like we have the best atmosphere in the nation. Ya’ll need to come experience that some time.”
Beck also spoke about the team having the motto of humble and hungry this season, which was inspired by something defensive coordinator Dave Weimers said early in the season. I think our players have shown themselves to be believers in that motto all season long. In every pre-game and post-game interview, as well as on KSN’s Tim Beck show, every player has been incredibly humble about the team’s success. But you can also hear the hunger and will to win in their voices, and undoubtedly, we see it every time they step on the field.
Senior Bristan Kelley was Pittsburg State’s player representative. He did a very good job in simply thanking the NCAA committee and the cities of Florence and Muscle Shoals. After he spoke he was presented with a leadership award.
Another highlight of the banquet was the presentation of the Elite 89 Award. The award is presented to the player at each of the 89 NCAA Championship sites that has the highest grade point average. Pittsburg State running back Eric Love was the recipient of this prestigious award. Eric has a 3.6829 GPA as a construction engineering management major. Eric thanked his professors, and the university for their emphasis on both athletic and academic performance. He also brought up that the emphasis is evident by the number of Academic All-Americans that PSU has produced in the last 10 years. And Love is also in that group as well. He is a great ambassador for Pittsburg State.
Prior to the luncheon the team had their first look at Braly Municipal Stadium. A team picture was taken (in the rain) and selected players and Coach Beck had the opportunity to talk to our ESPN talent for tomorrow’s game.
The sideline reporter said it was giving her chills to listen to the players talk about each other. She could tell that there was a real bond among the members of the team by how they talked about each other. I didn’t hear all they were saying, but there was a lot of laughter, some mention of Briceton “Big Daddy” Wilson, and quarterback Zac Dickey giving some incredible compliments to Nate Dreiling, Gus Toca and the entire Gorilla defense. I hope that those of you who watch the game on ESPN 2 tomorrow, will here some good stories!
And speaking of the Gorilla defense, they and a bunch of kids at Harlan Elementary School completely made this trip for me this morning!! The team split into offense and defense this morning to go to Shoals Championship Reading Initiative at two local schools. Director of Marketing and Community Engagement, Emily Moses, went with the offensive players and coaches to Weeden Elementary, while I went with the defensive players and coaches to Harlan.
We were greeted at the door of the school by the student leadership council. They were playing the Pitt State fight song and had made up a cheer. The leadership council led the team around the halls of the school in a parade. Kids from all the classes lined the halls with posters, pictures and pom poms they had made. We then gathered in the cafeteria where they had a little program for us to tell us what we were going to do. Then a leadership council member each took a player or two to each of the classrooms to read and talk to the kids.
Those children were hanging on every word those Gorilla players had to say!!! I just can’t even describe how amazing it was to see the joy on their faces and how wonderful our players were with those kids. Isreal Maselera had a group of pre-K kids asking him about how he learned to play football. I caught Eric Brantley talking to kids about being from a single parent home ... and about his Mickey Mouse stocking hat. Nate Dreiling and Jake Catloth were both doing a fabulous job reading books. Joe Windscheffel answered questions about his truck. John White did the tooty ta dance and Coach Kuhlman and Spencer Worthington were dancing as their class performed a Christmas song.
And then there were the activities in the gym! There was a paper wad snowball fight, a scooter obstacle course with Avery Adair, some can stacking, hula hooping, balance beam walking by Matt Anderson and a relay race to decorate a player (Cody Moore) and a student as a Christmas tree. What great fun!!
When our time in the classrooms were done, there were some refreshments from players and coaches, then the leadership council read some inspirational quotes to help the Gorillas with the game tomorrow.
The players gave the students two flags to keep at their school and Coach Weimers presented them with an autographed football to keep in their trophy case.
It was truly an experience that everyone there won’t soon forget! Sprinkled throughout this post are some pictures of the defensive players and Harlan Elementary kids.
I guess I will sign off for now. The team is off at practice and the rest of the evening is theirs to focus on the task at hand ... the national championship game tomorrow. My nerves are starting to set in, but the team and coaches seem like everything is status quo. That is reassuring! We know you all will be supporting our Gorillas as you always do, whether here at the stadium or at home on ESPN2.
Thursday, Dec. 15 – 8:30 p.m.
The second half of the day was certainly much busier than the first! After lunch and some time to rest, we headed to practice at the University of North Alabama practice facility. We were met there by another group of Gorillas. Phil Carr, Todd Brynds and the training staff left Pittsburg at 4:30 this morning and arrived at the field just before we did at about 3:30 this afternoon.
The team was just in shorts and pads and went through their normal practice routine. About 45 minutes into the practice time, it started to rain. We all know our Gorillas handle rain well, so it was no big deal to them.
Practice ended at 5:30 p.m. then the team had a short time to shower, change and loaded back up in the bus for the Championship Celebration Dinner. What a fun night!!!
As the teams got in line to eat, they were able to watch highlight videos from both teams, as well as a video about the history of the Harlon Hill Trophy, which included some highlights of Pitt State’s to previous winners, Ronald Moore and Ronnie West.
The barbeque meal was provided by Bishop’s BBQ from Cherokee, Alabama. It was great! The owner informed me (please imagine this being said in a thick Southern accent, because it just makes it more fun) he and his crew smoked 2,500 pounds of Boston butt for 20 hours in two huge pits filled with hickory wood. Their hard work was appreciated and thoroughly enjoyed, as most Gorillas went back for seconds (or thirds).
Several special guests were recognized on the night, including representatives from the four Florence area elementary schools the teams will be visiting tomorrow morning. The schools were each presented with $500 gift cards from Books-A-Million in the name of Pittsburg State and Wayne State. The two head coaches also presented the schools with signed balls.
Then the fun really began. The starting offensive line from each team, plus the offensive line coach and another player were invited up on stage for a game of Simon Says. Every person on stage was eliminated in the first try, but they got a second chance and were more clued in to the M.C.’s tricks. Kell Smalley was the first player out. Offensive line coach Steve Wells represented the Gorillas well as he was one of the last two standing and was eliminated at the same time as the final Wayne State player.
Several players were called up onstage to participate in Minute to Win It games. Jon Thomas and Anthony Abenoja had to shoot rubber bands at a pyramid of empty cans to knock them down. Wayne State won that one. Drew Castaneda and Jake Craig had to hold buckets on their heads and catch ping pong balls being thrown at them by Coach Neal Philpot. The Gorillas won that one 10-8. Paul Robinson and Eric Brantley had to use only their face muscles to move an Oreo cookie from their foreheads to their mouths. The Warriors took that one. Finally, Chase McCoy and Coach Frank Naccarato had to wear tissue boxes attached to ribbons around their waists and shake out 10 balls that were in those boxes. That game was a tie.
And yes, there was video taken of all of this!! Look for highlights from Jake Faber on the Pitt State Athletics YouTube page!
Finally, each head coach introduced each of their players and the players were greeted by the NCAA committee.
Tomorrow will be a busy day. The morning starts early with the team splitting up to visit two are elementary schools to talk with them about the importance of reading with the Shoals Championship Reading Initiative. Then it’s the first look at the stadium, head shots with ESPN and a team photo. There will be a luncheon with VIP sponsors, an hour long practice and team meetings.
The M.C. ended the night with this and I will leave you tonight with the same thought as well, “And then there were two.” What an honor and a privilege to be one of those two!! It took a lot of hard work by this group of men and their coaches, but there is still work to be done. Good night! Check in with us again tomorrow and we hope to see many of you at the stadium on Saturday! GO GORILLAS!
Thursday, Dec. 15 – 1 p.m.
The Kickoff Press Conference and Luncheon took place at the Florence Chamber of Commerce. There were introductions of the host committee and the NCAA-II football committee. The Harlon Hill Trophy finalists were introduced along with their accomplishments for the season. The Gorillas have been fortunate to have played against two of these finalists a total of three times, Washburn quarterback Dane Simoneau and Delta State quarterback, Micah Davis.
Then the head coaches from both schools were introduced and given a chance to address the group. First Wayne State head coach Paul Winters, then Coach Beck. Both coaches had one identical thing to say, “If you are going to win a championship, you have to beat the best.” With both teams having a similar style, this could be a grind-it-out to the finish game.
Shawn Jones, NCAA committee member from Central Missouri, introduced Coach Beck. In his introduction, Mr. Jones mentioned that Coach Beck had been with Pittsburg State for over a quarter century, “In short, Tim Beck is Pittsburg State.” I think Gorilla fans will agree that having an alumnus, who is such a family man and so involved in the Pittsburg community to represent our university is a very special thing.
When the coaches were finished, the reporters had 30 minutes for one-on-one interviews with the players from both teams and the Harlon Hill finalists. Representing the Gorillas were Zac Dickey, Gus Toca, Aaron Kolich and Nate Dreiling. The press conference probably felt a lot like being at home for our players, as most of the media contingent was our area, the Pittsburg Morning Sun, Team Kong, KSN, KODE, KOAM and FOX 14, and of course, our athletic and university marketing contingent, Jake Faber, Carla Wehmeyer and Jacob Anselmi.
Just a few things overhead during the press conference:
“I love being a Gorilla!” – Gus Toca when asked about being the only team in the country with a gorilla for a mascot
“We are a lot closer this year than we ever have been. “ – Nate Dreiling on the sense of camaraderie the team has this year
The playoff games were unbelievable. I still get goose bumps thinking about it. I’d love to bring a trophy back to Pittsburg and get one more win for the town.” – Nate Dreiling when asked about the support of the Pitt State fans.
Now its lunch for the team and then another media availability session before seeing Braly Stadium for the first time. Be sure to check in later!
Thursday, Dec. 15 – 9:33 a.m.
Good Morning Gorilla fans!!! We are in ALABAMA!! Today there isn’t a lot on the agenda, so I thought it would be good to take some time and catch you up on yesterday’s events.
This week has been crazy in the athletic department! Can you imagine how much work it takes to pull together the travel arrangements for over 150 people? I have to say that Jim Johnson, Natalie Cullen, John Pierce and everyone that helped make the arrangements did a great job of making everything as smooth as possible. There was a lot of “hurry up and wait” time, but we did all have to have our carry ons searched at the Joplin airport and be wanded. Yes, security is still a priority on a charter flight. When we got to the Muscle Shoals airport we had to sit in the plane on the tarmac for a while, as the Wayne State team got in just before us and we had to wait for them to deplane.
A big thank you to everyone who was at the rec center yesterday for the send off. The alumni office did a great job of pulling everything together, Vinnie Daino was generous in letting us use the facility and the band and cheerleaders were there to pump the crowd up. It was awesome to see so many people there! It gave me chills to see the door open up and the team come out. They were excited, yet calm at the same time. They are Coach Beck was presented with a large stuffed Gorilla from Dick Coleman and Brian Hutchins that went to the 1991 National Championship with the team. We all know what happened then!! It stayed in a trophy case it Pittsburg since then, so Dick and Brian felt it was important that it came with us to Florence this year. The whole way to Joplin, behind a police escort from PSU Police, Pittsburg Police and the Crawford County Sherriff’s office, honks waves and No. 1 signs met us. This team is definitely a group of celebrities in Pittsburg and they appreciate the support more than anyone could know.
Once we arrived in Muscle Shoals, we were greeted by another police escort that helped us get to the beautiful Marriott at the Shoals. The hotel lobby was filled with pictures of the Gorillas all around a huge Christmas tree decorated all in red and gold. That may have been a coincidence, but I like to believe they did it just for the Gorillas. Johnna Schremmer from Alumni & Constituent Relations met us and she was the one who had done all the decorating, complete with huge gold balloons that spelled out “Go Gorillas” and a red and gold tree she brought all the way from Pittsburg. What a way to make us feel at home.
Speaking of being at home, the coaches are sure to feel more at home with their families with them. I have to say; those Gorillas kids are some of the best behaved kids I have seen. And they are so excited for the Gorillas! Big compliments to those hard working daddies and their equally hard working and supportive mommies. They just add an extra fun dimension to the trip. There is nothing like the excitement of a child to make you realize how special this event really is.
Oh yes, one more compliment to Coach Beck and his staff. The flight crew gave the team a big compliment stating they were the most polite team they have ever flown with. I agree; this is a wonderful group of guys, as I am sure all of you fans know! They will talk to anyone, are appreciative of all their fan support and have wonderful manners ... and they are tough on the field!
So that’s all for now. This is a business trip. There is work to be done! We’ll be back later with some information from the Kickoff Press Conference
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