I remember the night like it was yesterday. One of the greatest upsets in Region football history.
On the night of Nov. 14, 1997, two great football teams lined up after a tense tussle. Hobart senior Craig Osika had tears streaming down his red cheeks, while several overjoyed Griffith players congratulated Osika and wished him the best at Indiana University.
Griffith 35, Hobart 21 is what the scoreboard screamed on that Class 4A regional night. Panthers coach Russ Radtke pulled out a phone book of plays that the Brickies had run all season. It was all black and gold at The Boneyard that night.
This crazy scouting method allowed Griffith to beat its nemesis and go on and win the state championship like a runaway freight train.
Probably the greatest upset in Region folklore occurred two years earlier at the Brickie Bowl. In the Mud Bowl, as it still is called, Hobart and Hall of Fame coach Don Howell road the arc in the 14-13 win.
Griffith was the best team in Indiana that autumn. But the Bricks found a way to survive on the wettest field these eyes have ever seen.
This rivalry never gets old. And we get another chapter of it Friday night at The Brickyard. Radtke’s New Prairie team rolls into town as the No. 1 team in Class 4A. Osika, now coaching his alma mater, runs the No. 3 team in the state.
It’s deja vu all over again in one of the most tense contests I’ve covered throughout the years.
Long before the IHSAA’s Sportsmanship kick began, which I fully endorse and believe in, the Radtke-Hobart rivalry of the 1990's was rated R.
There was sincere hatred years ago. Yes, there was respect, but the players did not like each other. The fan dislike of the other was also extremely loud. The amps in this tune went all the way to 11.
It was one more. One louder.
In Week 2 of that 1997 season, Hobart beat Griffith 21-6 giving Howell and Tom Kerr their 300th career win together. That celebration was insane. The only one louder was a couple of months later when the Panthers returned the favor.
Radtke drove off Broad Street in 2011 and has built one of the state’s great powers at New Prairie.
Hobart and the Cougars have only played once in the last 35 years. And yep, there was money on the line in that one, too. In 2016, Hobart beat Radtke 35-14 to win its first sectional championship in 19 years. Yep, the ‘97 season when Radtke beat the Bricks was the program’s last sectional title before Ryan Turley, with Osika as an assistant, snapped the streak.
This time there won’t be fans watching from tree branches like the old days, but if there were trees around Hobart’s new stadium, there would likely be fans climbing the bark and barking at Radtke.
The place will be packed and whoever wins, in my humble opinion, will have a good shot to get to Lucas Oil Stadium. How could it be any different? It’s Radtke vs. Hobart.
The steel-toed boots and thermoses will parade in to watch a great game. How close is this one on paper? Both the Brickies and the Cougars beat Andrean this season, New Prairie in Week 2 and Hobart in Week 5.
And the score was identical -- 33-10.
I was at the Hobart-Andrean game and was very impressed by the Brickies. Hobart’s defense has two straight shutouts and five zeros on the season. In typical fashion for a team coached by Radtke, his team is averaging 43.17 points a game, which is 10th in Indiana.
Something will have to give. And it will.
If you’ve lived most of your life without an i-Phone like me, think of all the great games between Radtke and Hobart through the years. It will take awhile. But it will surely get you ready for what should be a terrific tilt.
And wear a flannel shirt. You just have to.
Friday night, like always, is one of the best days on the calendar.
It’s like getting the winning lottery ticket. Finding a brand new parka just before next week’s polar vortex freezes us like raw meat. Watching the Cubs win another World Series, while the Sox go 63-99. Or having a stranger say something nice for a change.
All these and more all rolled up into one, this is.
On 48 different grids across the state of Indiana sectional championships will be decided tonight. And I still contend that the football sectional is the hardest of all to obtain. It takes three weeks of excellence, luck, good weather, athletes passing as report cards come out and all the other intangibles it takes for a bucket of Gatorade to be tossed on the coaches’ frosty head.
I will focus on Da Region’s sectionals in this piece, because, well, I don’t give two bleeps who wins the Western Boone-South Vermillion clash.
Why? Because I don’t. That’s why.
In Class 6A we have Merrillville at Crown Point. This one’s like two brothers in the same bed getting in a blanket tug-of-war at 2 a.m. These programs have been playing in this game so long you almost know it’s going to happen in July. Of last year.
The Bulldogs have won three straight over the Pirates in postseason play. The teams have played in five straight sectionals. While the Andrean-Merrillville game has been dubbed “The Battle of Broadway” for decades, we might have to cal the C.P. game by the same moniker with all the business on Broadway in C.P.
Merrillville won the Week 3 game 27-24 in overtime. The Bucs have more team speed and a more headline-grabbing offense. I picked the Pirates to get to state a few weeks ago, but I also warned that they be ready for THIS game.
Crown Point is always ready for THIS game when the air turns cold.
In Class 5A Valparaiso travels to LaPorte. There will be a running clock in this one. All green all the time.
Now, we get to another classic Region showdown. Lowell will travel to Hobart in the Class 4A foray. Too bad this one can’t be played at the old Brickie Bowl. I bet Tom Kerr would take a broom over to the old haunts to get the cobwebs swept up.
Hobart was the king of area football for decades. Eleven trips to Indianapolis is proof of that. But in 1994 everything changed. And I do mean everything.
Mike Pickett and the Red Devils ran past the Brickies 28-25 in the regional and it’s been almost all RDP ever since. Lowell has made it to four state championship games since 2005. Hobart is looking to get back to the state capital.
The Bricks beat the Devils 38-7 on October 18. That street was only running in one direction on that night. I expect the same again. Craig Osika’s team is very talented and has a hunger that is hard to be controlled.
And Hobart has a nose tackle named Pickett, too.
As much as things change, they also seem to stay the same.
In Class 3A Calumet will host Knox. I would love to see Rick Good scalp the team with the worst nickname in Indiana high school sports. But, I’m afraid, it might be too much.. Knox is extremely good and they’ve been in these kind of games for a very long time.
But why not make some history, Warriors? Why not?
And in 2A we have another “Region” classic. Rensselaer will travel to Father Eckert Field to take on the Andrean 59ers. The biggest question in this game is is Rensselaer in the Region? Despite a bit of a drive I am going to say it is. I know in my former job Bombers Nation read every word online and sent folks to truck stops to pick up newspapers. Then, a genious in charge made the decision to stop covering Rensselaer.
Any more questions about why the media is dying?
Andrean and Rensselaer will be a great game. Two fantastic coaches and two talented teams. This one will go down to the wire. And the winning coach’s first name is Chris. What more can I say.
Enjoy this night. It is special and somewhat eternal. Soak it all up.
Because it may just be the last night we can all go outside without wearing nine layers of clothes.
GARY -- It’s a tough place. The kind of environment that could, and does, swallow a kid up.
If he chooses to allow it, of course.
The basketball courts at the Dorie Miller Homes in Gary’s Aetna/Pulaski neighborhood are where the strong survive and those who lose a game get mocked after the final ball goes through the hoop.
Johnell Davis went there as a lad, dribbling the orange ball and dreaming big. Real big. He wanted to play with the guys several years older than him. He had no interest in shooting the rock with his pint-sized peers.
Let the elbows to the face, the falls on the asphalt be danged.
“I wanted to get better,” said Davis, now a senior at 21st Century. “I knew that was the only way I could.”
His father, John Davis, played basketball for the legendary Ron Heflin at Gary Roosevelt. His brothers, Jeffery Little and Jonathan Davis, also wore the black and gold for the Panthers’ faithful.
Yes, the kid called ‘Nelly did come from a basketball family.
“Whenever I went outside the house I had a basketball in my hand,” Johnell said. “Always. I would just dribble up and down the street. Every day. I loved playing against older guys. They’d block my shots. They were bigger, faster and stronger. I didn’t care. I have just loved the game of basketball my entire life.”
This kind of desire and passion and work ethic, owned by the Cougars’ No. 10, soon changed his destiny. In middle school he ended up at 21 and played some pickup ball against Century’s Eugene German.
Now at Northern Illinois, it was German who put 21st Century on the map.
But Davis and his teammates want to drive the school bus down the map to Indianapolis.
“Geno played against Johnell in the summer in the gym and he said, ‘Wow,’” 21st Century coach Rodney Williams said. “He told me then that Nelly was going to be better than he ever was. He said, ‘He is going to be your next star.’”
Remember, German led the state of Indiana in scoring his junior and senior seasons. And after being snubbed by the Indiana All-Star junior team, German was picked for the team as a senior and was the game’s MVP against Kentucky.
Now, though, Davis needs just 577 points to eclipse German’s school scoring record. That is, of course, saying something.
“I need to average 25 points a game,” Davis said. “I think I can do it.”
German has the single-game scoring record at 51. Davis scored 45 last season against Fishers.
Talk about playing with the big guys in the big court, right?
Recently, Davis committed to play Division I basketball at Florida Atlantic. Coached by Dusty May, the Owls play in Conference USA.
And no one now is saying “Who” with this high-flying bird.
Through hard work and extreme determination, Davis has gone from the east side of Gary, Indiana to Boca Raton, a shining star on a sunny beach.
“It was great to get this dream,” Davis said. “Now, I only have a few more.”
Getting to Indianapolis in March is the biggest.
Coach Williams has much more than just the 6-foot-4 point guard. Guard Triyontae Lomax is being recruited byToledo and Miami of Ohio. Forward Cameron Jernigan also has Toledo, among others, recruiting him. And Indiana State and Ball State are recruiting Demondrick Velez.
“Nelly has a lot of help this year,” Williams said.
When this much limelight hits a teenager and his team, they often have to deal with the old big-head slow dance with ego. Several youngsters through the years have become a victim to pride’s powerful pull.
But Williams said this won’t happen to Davis.
“He’s too good of a kid,” he said.
LaKisha Thigpen was hired as 21st Century’s principal this summer. So the kid who walks around his school with a smile on his face in treating everyone well decided to do something nice. He brought Thigpen a box of Dunkin Donuts.
A few days later, just for kicks, he did it again.
Williams said that Thigpen invited Davis into the office so some parents could meet the pride of this school. Sounds like a great decision.
Hopefully, the Region will back this standout young man. I know his school and city are doing the same kind of thing.
It’s Cash Time in the 2-1-9, a moment where the filled bleachers bowing down to playoff football can chant “Cha ching” as the IHSAA state playoffs kickoff on Friday.
The top will be separated from the bottom. And the middle will most likely be taken apart by those on top. Perhaps.
It is one of the most exciting time slots on the prep calendar. We get to observe great programs, stellar student athletes, emotion-dripping coaching staffs, along with underdogs slinging their arrows from Angola to Zionsville.
Then, we all get to break bread together on Thanksgiving Weekend at Lucas Oil Stadium. To me, this is good eats to say the least.
So here are my predictions for the sectional, regional, semi-state and state championships. And these are money in the bank.
Sectional 41: South Central (2-7) and Lake Station (2-7) have the best records for area teams in this field, with winless Roosevelt also ready to make some magic. But our area will go 0-fer in this tourney. Winamac (4-5) will win this lackluster collection. Give it your all fellas and get to work in the offseason to try and turn this around.
Sectional 33: We go from marginal to massive in just a few more kids in the classroom. This sectional is insanely good. Rensselaer (7-2) plays at Wheeler (4-5). Boone Grove (9-0) travels to Whiting (2-7). Andrean (6-3) plays Bowman Academy (3-5) in Week 1, and North Newton (7-2) awaits the Game 1 winner.
I wish Nancy Pelosi would point her finger at this. There shouldn’t be this much skill all in one place.
Chris Skinner’s Andrean team has played the best regular-season schedule. But the Wolves of Boone Grove have had a historic season, going undefeated for the first time. Whiting played at state in 2015. Rensselaer won state in 2014. And the 59ers won state in 2013 and returned the next November.
This year is the Chris Bowl, Meeks vs. Skinner. I give the 59ers a slight edge, but they better be ready for the Bombers.
Sectional 25: While more attention will be given to other sectionals, this is the young coaches turnaround field. Brian Parker’s Hanover Central squad has a great shot at winning at Twin Lakes and getting an elephant ear at Indiana Beach. Nick Testa has done a great job at Clark, but Knox will be too much in the opener. Rick Good is my “Coach of the Year” at Calumet and his Warriors will win at Hammond. And Joe O’Connell has also done a tremendous job at River Forest.
Take a bow, gents. You are all earning your money.
Knox beats Calumet in a close final.
Sectional 17: Anyone who loves the IHSAA’s “Blind draw” should argue politics on Twitter. It’s just plain stupid. Hessville will host the championship game with Hobart (7-2) playing Morton (8-1). One of the top teams in the state will be done after one playoff game because of gravity and a ping pong ball.
I am giving a slight edge to Sean Kinsey’s Govs, an extremely talented team on its own field. But this is by a razor. The winner will beat Lowell in the final.
Sectional 9: My momma, God rest her soul, always told me to never eat green turkey. She said it had gone bad. But this November the Region will eat green turkey as Bill Marshall’s Valparaiso Vikings will make it to Indy to play on the big stage. Not one team in this sectional has a chance against this Green Machine.
Sectional 1: If there is going to be a so-called “Blind draw,” why can’t it be broadcast live. Let the fans of Indiana see the ping pong balls bounce out letting us know who plays who. It’s done in the lottery drawings and this is about some serious lettuce, right?
Merrillville (8-1) hosts Lafayette Jeff (9-0) in the opening round. Just insane. The Pirates will get the close win. Crown Point should beat Lake Central in the other semifinal. And while, on paper, it looks like the Bucs will win. Remember C.P. took Merrillville into OT in Week 3. This could be a classic.
Sectional 2: Chesterton will win this sectional as Mark Peterson and his team make some history and it will be his story. Their story.
Indianapolis Lutheran will win the Class A state crown. Evansville Mater Dei will grab the 2A hardware. Indianapolis Chatard do the 3A dance. Former Griffith coach Russ Radtke will win the 4A title with New Prairie. New Palestine will edge Valpo in 5A. And Avon will beat Merrillville in the 6A state final.
And ya’ll know what this is. Cash money.
DA REGION -- Boy, would I love to be a college professor, work a couple hours a week and bring home six figures. I think I’d look good in a cardigan, holding a cup of coffee and chatting about Descartes.
Or maybe be a college president, after ruining the Indiana educational system then making big bank in West Lafayette. Yes, you can call me Mitch. Or a son of a Mitch.
With the leaves starting to fall and the air soon to start chill’n like a villian, and with educamation on my mind, I feel it is time to give out the midseason report cards for Region football. My red pen is full of ink and I am full of something else.
Yepper, you can call me Professor Steve, if you’d like.
MERRILLVILLE -- Bobby Babcock is an elite high school football player, quick to the ball, fierce with his tackles and a lock-down game-changer for the Hobart Brickies.
Yet, he had tears streaming down his face after a 33-10 dominating win at Father Eckert Field on Friday night at Andrean.
The 6-foot, 200-pound linebacker had three tackles for loss, defended and batted away several passes thrown his way and a huge fumble recovery to set up another Brickie TD.
But the tears dripped down nonetheless.
Football isn’t just a game for Babcock. It is family.
“This team, they lift me up every day,” Babcock said. “They are my brothers.”
When Babcock was 8, his mother died, bringing chaos and uncertainty to his daily life. The searing sadness also was shared by his sister Danielle and brother Michael.
Then,when he was living in Chesterton, his best friend was killed in a gang shooting in Chicago.
Can you imagine having two such blows occurring at such a young age? Me either.
Now you understand the tears.
“Every Friday night we prepare for the game,” he said. “I have the best coaches and teammates anyone could ever ask for. It’s all about the heart. We have tremendous heart as a team.”
I’ve been covering Hobart football for 25 years. It’s been a thrill. What a program and what a legacy. Meeting Don Howell for the first time almost took my breath away. Fear turned to friendship after we spent enough time together.
The Hall of Fame coach took the Brickies to 11 state championship games and they won it all four times.
But when I spoke to Howell’s wife, Roz, all those years ago, she never talked about field goals, holding penalties or what the scoreboard said and read. What she was focused on was lives being changed.
She could talk for hours about this kid or another and she spoke about how the football family at Hobart and the culture there helped to lift young men up, kids who were facing difficulties at home or in the neighborhood.
Babcock’s beating heart is an example of this great legacy moving forward.
“I’ve let Bobby know he can call me any time of the week, 24/7,” Hobart coach Craig Osika said. “He can talk to me about anything. I have two daughters so all the kids on this team are my boys. We will be there for Bobby and help him whenever he needs it.
“That’s what Hobart football is all about.”
I’ve been writing about the Brickies’ junior class for about five years. They were making a name for themselves in middle school blowouts. I made comparisons to Lowell’s 2017 state finalist team, a large group of athletes and football players all on the same page.
I will now compare Bobby Babcock with Lowell’s Jordan Jusevitch, now playing at Indiana. They are very similar on the grid iron. A star surrounded by talented teammates.This seems to be the Region way.
Like Lowell, this Hobart team is growing and maturing at the right time. And it starts with Babcock.
“He was not very coachable last year,” Osika said. “I talked to him about it in the offseason. This year Bobby’s been so unselfish. He’s done everything we’ve asked him to do and that has made him a better player.”
Babcock has two little cousins -- Izabelle and Jack -- who he thinks of and plays for every Friday night. His head is up and he is focused on his future, trying to rise up from his past.
“Not every day is sunshine and rainbows,” Babcock said. “I know that. But this football team, my brothers, they are there for me every day. We are going to stick together.”
So the true legacy of Hobart football continues.
And that is a very good thing.
CALUMET TWP. -- If you did not have a tear in your eye, you don’t have a soul.
Friday night’s Whiting at Calumet football game was not about what the scoreboard said. One Warriors assistant coach shouted to the teenagers on the sidelines, “This isn’t about the score of the game. It’s about playing hard and sticking together like a family.”
A few minutes later the scoreboard stopped working and the rest of the Greater South Shore Conference was timed by the officials.
The 36-0 win by the Warriors, the first since 2009 over the Oilers, mattered. But not nearly as much as remembering the life and spirit of Calumet freshman Curtis Walton Jr., who died on Thursday.
The images and snapshots of the eve were melancholy. But also extremely inspiring.
Our flag flew at half-staff in the southwest corner of the stadium, a strange and rare moment under the lights of Friday night.
Calumet freshman Andrew Marcum was crying uncontrollably just after the kickoff. That’s when senior Tyler Austin noticed and walked over and put his arm around the youngster and said, “You’re going to be all right.”
Both had No. 19 decals on the back of their helmets, like every player in the game. The 1-9 was the jersey number that Walton Jr. wore. The one part of the scoreboard that did work all night was a computerized image of 1-9 with an image of the talented athlete who has passed to soon.
Calumet’s volleyball team walked around and collected donations for the Walton family and the large crowd supporting this Warriors’ program, which is now 3-1 for the second year in a row under coach Rick Good They collected over $2,000 to help the family in this stressful and God-awful time.
Curtis’ sister, Micaiah, wore a black No. 19 jersey and went out to midfield for the coin toss.
Calumet’s middle school team was introduced at halftime and Curtis’ younger brother, Joshua, was the last Warrior announced. The entire team huddled around the kid, also wearing 19, and did a group hug that lasted several minutes.
If this moment didn’t move you, you have a heart of stone.
Calumet dominated the play on the field, proof that Good and his staff are doing a remarkable job in this rebuild. Junior quarterback Mark Flores ran for two touchdowns and threw for two more. His teammates are bigger and stronger than the decades before. The speed and tenacity these kids played with was impressive.
This program has a chance to run the table in the regular season.
“This week has been tough, real tough,” Good said. “Football is supposed to be our outlet for the tough things that happen in our lives. Our community suffered a great loss this week. I think playing this game allowed our kids to focus on something else.
“On this night football was our escape.”
The team went into the swimming pool after Wednesday’s practice to cool off. Walton Jr. was found unresponsive under the waves. He was pronounced dead at the University of Chicago on Thursday.
“Curtis was a great athlete, a great kid,” Flores said. “We believe he would have wanted us to play this game for him. We did. He was up in heaven looking down on us. I hope we made him proud.”
“He was a wonderful person,” sophomore Scott Flores said. “He was not just a friend, but a brother.”
His friends and teammates spoke about Walton Jr.’s personality. He was competitive, talented, but also fun. On the basketball court he would tell people they couldn’t stop him. But if you hit a shot on him, he would smile.
“He had the greatest smile I’ve ever seen,” freshman David Flores said. “He was always smiling.”
It’s hard to put things like this in perspective. It is. A child with so much before him shouldn’t be taken. It’s not fair. Parents shouldn’t bury their children. All of this is true.
But the second chapter of this sad story is how a community came together in a way few have seen. The love for this young man was expressed by the thousands at the game. I hope that this will give this family some wings to fly.
I ask that everyone in the Region say a prayer for the Waltons and the Calumet community. Then, do it again.
“He’s the only star in the sky, he’s our star,” David Flores said, while pointing to the sky. And he was right. There was only one star peeking through the cloudy night. Twinkling, while looking down.
MERRILLVILLE -- Brad Seiss spoke to his football team on Thursday afternoon, a sun-baked home with a cool breeze out of the north.
Yep, it’s football season in Da Region.
Listen to JED read Hanlon's column:
MUNSTER -- Last Friday night, as the 2019 Indiana high school football season kicked off, there was raw excitement from Angola to Zionsville.
Small towns and urban dwellings were illuminated by those old Friday night lights. From the buttery smell of popcorn to the cries of the cheerleaders to the pulse-quickening marching bands to the nearly eternal moment of that first charge onto the gridiron, joy was plain to see.
MUNSTER -- About 25 years ago, I met a man for the first time. I had read about him in my younger days. The resume was off the charts. A tall, fit man with the Sargent Carter haircut.
My knees were knocking together the first time I met John Friend.
Like the first time I was face to face with longtime Hobart coach Don Howell, I was scared to death standing in the shadows of such greatness.