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FOOTBALL: Who is the Best Team Ever?

Since the advent of the high school football state tournament in 1973, Northwest Indiana has had 11 state champions and 16 other state finals appearances. Valparaiso got it all started in 1975, becoming the first of three consecutive Duneland Conference teams to capture the crown. Using the antiquated single wing offense to perfection, Head Coach Tom Stokes and the Vikings grounded the aerial attack of quarterback Mark Herrmann and the Carmel Greyhounds 14-13 for Northwest Indiana’s first non-mythical state title. Merrillville followed by capturing the crown in ’76 and Portage rounded out the Duneland trifecta in 1977. Hobart and legendary coach Don Howell followed soon after with a period of 11 finals appearances beginning in 1979 that resulted in state crowns in ‘87, ‘89, ‘91 and ‘93, an era of football dominance that is unmatched in state history.

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Bishop Noll grabbed a piece of gridiron glory with a state title in 1989, followed by Griffith in 1997, the Andrean 59’ers in 2004 and the Lowell Red Devils in 2005. But which of these teams was the best football team the Region has ever produced?

In basketball it has always been said that the best teams in Northwest Indiana don’t always win the regional or even the sectional for that matter, because Region teams always beat each other up locally before ever meeting state competition. Therefore, couldn’t the same assumption be true in football? Does a team have to win a state championship to be considered a truly great team? Valparaiso, Merrillville and Portage didn’t even win the Duneland Conference title yet all ended up as state champs. So is it possible that the best team Northwest Indiana has ever produced didn’t even make it to the finals, much less win the title?

(Note: In order to attempt to answer any of these questions or to reach any consensus about what was the greatest team in Northwest Indiana high school football history, the Region Sports Monthly staff conducted extensive research that consisted of interviews and conversations with coaches, media and fans alike. The team profiles that follow were the three Region teams that were mentioned most often.)


1977 MERRILLVILLE PIRATES

No team that ever failed to win a state championship in Northwest Indiana is remembered with more awe and respect than the Merrillville Pirates of 1977. After capturing the state title in 1976, the Pirates dominated the Region gridiron scene the following year, posting a 10-0 regular season to become the first undefeated team at Merrillville since 1949. Led by All-State selections Tim Seneff, Tom Szmagaj and Mike Chelovich as well as junior Tom Jelesky, the Pirates ran roughshod over their opponents. The Pirate defense posted 5 shutouts over the course of the season, outscoring opponents by a combined 243 to 36 points. Fate was fickle in the post season however, as the Pirates fell to Portage 3-0 in the sectional.

Regardless of their failure to win the state in ’77, most coaches feel that this might be the best team in Region history. One person who thinks it’s indeed possible to fail to win the state title and still be the best of all time is former Crown Point and Highland mentor Brad Smith. Currently the head coach at Attica, Smith was an assistant at Portage under Les Klein in 1977, the year the Indians won the state but were DAC conference runners up to the Pirates.

“I’ve thought about this for a while, and I still think that maybe the best (Region) football team ever was the ’77 Merrillville team that didn’t win state,” said Smith. “They were a special team. They were just loaded and were much better than the (Merrillville) team the year before that did win the state. But as luck would have it, they didn’t make it out of the sectional.”

Munster Head Coach Leroy Marsh agrees with Smith about the Pirates of ‘77. “That loss to Portage in the sectional was probably the greatest upset in all of the tournament (history)” said Marsh. “The Merrillville team in ‘77 was maybe the most talented team (ever) as far as having the full package. Kenny Haupt had a great Wing T offense going and the thing I remember most about them was their guards, Chelovich and (Larry) Tharp, who were outstanding out on the perimeter. But (Merrillville) didn’t beat you by a lot of points. They just controlled the football.”

According to Smith, that was the right recipe for greatness. “They had everything, a great running game and one of the most stifling defenses I’ve ever seen in my life. Nobody could move the ball on those guys. They were just a dominant team.”              

Wes Lukoshus, then a reporter covering high school football for the Times newspaper, adds a media perspective on the Pirates of ‘77. “Merrillville won state in 1976 and had the guts of that team coming back in ’77,” said Lukoshus. “As far as the best (high school) football I have seen, I would say the ’77 Merrillville team was the finest football team in Northwest Indiana not to win a state championship.”

“They played power football,” continued Lukoshus. “They had guards who could pull and they would run the old Green Bay sweep and they could come at you up the middle. You couldn’t really key on one aspect of the game because they could come at you in so many different ways.”


1987 HOBART BRICKIES

The reputation of Region football was for many years carried on the shoulder pads of the Hobart Brickies. So when deciding what team may be the greatest of all time, you must first decide which particular Hobart squad was the greatest team in Brickie history.

The ‘79 squad made it to the state finals despite a rash of injuries before falling to Columbus East and Blair Kiel, but not before knocking out No. 9 Munster and No. 2 Penn out of the tournament in successive weeks. The ’85 Hobart state runner-up team went 13-1, notching eight shutouts along the way before falling to Brownsburg in the title game. And the ’86 Brickies started the campaign with high hopes, but a season opening 14-7 loss to Lake Central ended the 71 game Brickie Bowl winning streak, and a 24-21 overtime loss at Munster in the regional derailed Hobart’s dreams of a state championship.

In 1987 however, those dreams were fulfilled as the Brickies went undefeated (14-0) to become the first of Hobart’s four state champions. With a star-studded lineup that included Chris Drobac, Jeff Ford, Mike Golarz and Bryan Newcombe, this talented bunch not only outscored the opposition 189-25 in tournament action, but over the course of the season only five opponents came within 10 points of the Brickies, who wound up ranked Number 9 nationally by USA Today.

The Brickies would again win the crown in 1989, going 13-1 for the campaign. After losing to Gary Wallace in the opener, the Brickies would go on to register six shutouts that year. The ’91 and ’93 Hobart squads each won state titles as well and were great teams in their own right, but don’t seem to be spoken of with the same reverence as earlier Brickie teams, nor did they seem to have the same dominance that those teams displayed, certainly a tall order for any team.

So which of these great years was the best in Brickie history and where would that team fit in on the list of the Regions all-time best? According to Leroy Marsh it’s a toss up, but he leans toward the 1987 team. “I don’t even know if they were the best of Don Howell’s teams, because he had so many good teams go through,” said Marsh. “But I do know that it was one of Don’s favorite teams as far as maybe being overachievers. We had a helluva game with ‘em over there and we had them beat but they put a drive together with just under two minutes to go and it ended up with a fumble in the end zone and the whole Brickie Bowl went silent for about 30 seconds while they un-piled, but the Hobart center came up with the ball. But that team was tough all the way across the board.” 

To Tom Kerr, Hobart’s retired defensive boss who spent more than forty years on the Brickie sideline, the choice is clear. “We had some other great teams with equal physical talent, but that ’87 team had the combination of great desire to win plus the proper mental and physical ability,” said Kerr. “The 1989 team was another great team, but that ’87 team had it all.”


1997 GRIFFITH PANTHERS

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No list of the Region’s best teams would be complete without mentioning the 1997 Griffith Panthers. A team as athletically gifted as this one comes along maybe once a generation. Big, strong and most of all fast, this team featured three 1,000 yard rushers and a fourth who nearly turned the trick. Known as the “Four Horsemen,” the quartet of Shane Radtke, Shawn Andriessen, Tom Grasha and Dennis Palucki ran roughshod over anyone and everyone, including Hamilton Southeastern, who they walloped in the state finals 49-7. Following a week two loss to the Hobart Brickies, the Panthers began devouring opponents, outscoring Highland, Munster and Hammond Clark by a combined 120-6.  Later on that season they had another three game stretch that was even more lopsided than that, outscoring opponents 195- 26. All told, the Wishbone-led game plan posted 636 total points for the season. In the playoffs alone the Panthers scored 252 points in six games and for the season Griffith totaled 6,650 yards of offense.

And for all of the offense that Griffith produced that year, they were equally capable on the defensive side of the ball as well. Leading tackler Shane Tinnich, Steve Holzbach and Joe Bonnema anchored a defense that allowed only five opponents out of 15 to score in double figures on the season.

Brad Smith had the misfortune of being on the wrong side of a combined 109-12 ledger in two games against those Panthers. “They were phenomenal because they had such great speed that they made you defend the entire field,” said Smith. “Because they ran the wishbone and they could throw it too, if you made one little mistake they were gone.”

“That Griffith team had a nice set up because all four of those kids contributed a lot,” agreed Leroy Marsh, whose Mustangs had their own troubles with the Panthers that year. “They weren’t just a one dimensional (team) and I think out of all the Radtke boys, Shane was maybe the toughest of them all as far as being hard nosed and being a winner. There was no one guy you could key on and that’s what made them so tough. They could do everything.”

Wes Lukoshus and Tom Kerr echoed the statements of Smith and Marsh. “Griffith had a great team,” said Lukoshus. “Running that wishbone puts such great pressure on a defense, particularly come playoff time when you’ve got just one week to prepare for a team who executes the wishbone as well as Griffith does.” Added Hobart defensive boss Tom Kerr, “Those guys were no fun to try to defend, that’s for sure.”

So which of these Region juggernauts was indeed the best? Picking the best of just these three is difficult and everyone has their own opinions. Although Brad Smith feels Merrillville in ’77 was the greatest he would love to see the teams play.

“If I could set up a classic match-up, I would love to see the ’97 Griffith offense be defended by the ’77 Merrillville defense,” said Smith.  “Just to see who could do what, because in all my experience, the ’97 Griffith team was the best offensive team by far and the ’77 Merrillville team was the best defensive team,” continued Smith.    

Leroy Marsh concurs with Smith on the ’77 Merrillville squad being the best, but with reservations. “They were all different types of teams,” said Marsh. “There have been a lot of great teams in the last 30 years that I’ve been coaching but if I had to pick one of the three it’d be the ’77 Merrillville team. They were solid all across the board, a great football team.”

Although dominance in football around the state is cyclical, Northwest Indiana has had their share of dominant teams certainly equal to any of the great teams of the past from other parts of the state. While undeniably the Region has had its share of powerhouses and dynasties in the era of the mythical state championship prior to the tournament, the tournament was conceived with the idea of crowning a true state champion, a championship won by merit on the field and not one awarded by a poll.  

Therefore, with all due deference and respect to the pre tourney era, our discussion has focused on tournament era teams, whether they were champions or not. And as difficult as it is to compare different teams from different eras, the subject makes great fodder for discussion and the three teams we have featured in this story were the consensus picks of the coaches, media and fans we surveyed. But by no means do we assume that these selections are the final and definitively right answers.

So we put the question to you, the public. Which of these Region legends was indeed the best? If not Merrillville in ’77, Hobart in ’87 or Griffith in ’97, then who? Let us know what you think.

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1977 MERRILLVILLE PIRATES (10-1, 6-0)

Head Coach: Ken Haupt
at Hobart (17-0)
at Gary Lew Wallace (7-6)     
Gary Wirt (21-0)
Chesterton (34-6) 
Portage (34-7) 
at Andrean (20-0)      
at Michigan City Rogers (28-0)
at Valparaiso (20-7)      
at Munster (28-7)      
LaPorte (34-0)     
Portage (sectional) (0-3)  
      

1987 HOBART BRICKIES (14-0, 6-0)
Head Coach: Don Howell
Class 4A State Champs
Gary Lew Wallace (34-6)       
at Valparaiso (21-8)
Andrean (17-12)
at LaPorte (9-6)    
at Chesterton (33-6)      
at Portage (28-0)      
Merrillville (24-14)     
Michigan City Rogers (35-6)        
Michigan City Elston  (42-6) 
South Bend LaSalle (sectional) (44-0)       
South Bend St. Joseph’s (sectional) (23-13)      
Munster (regional) (7-3)      
Fort Wayne Wayne (semi-state) (42-3)      
Jasper (state) (31-0)


1997 GRIFFITH PANTHERS (14-1, 4-0)

Head Coach: Russ Radtke
CLASS 4A State Champs
at LaPorte (41-6)
at Hobart (6-21) L      
Highland (46-6)
Munster (28-0)      
Hammond Clark (48-0) 
at Lowell (20-13)     
at Calumet (73-0)     
at Whiting (53-19)      
Hammond Gavit (69-7) 
Munster (sectional) (21-6)     
at Highland (sectional) (63-6)      
Hammond (sectional) (49-7)
Hobart (regional) (35-21)      
at Fort Wayne Dwenger (semi-state) (35-21)
Hamilton Southeastern (state) (49-7)     


NORTHWEST INDIANA STATE FOOTBALL CHAMPIONS
2005 Lowell Red Devils (4A)
2004 Andrean 59’ers (3A)
1997 Griffith Panthers (4A)
1993 Hobart Brickies (4A)
1991 Hobart Brickies (4A)
1989 Hobart Brickies (4A)
1989 Bishop Noll Warriors (3A)
1987 Hobart Brickies (4A)
1977 Portage Indians (3A)
1976 Merrillville Pirates (3A)
1975 Valparaiso Vikings (3A)


NORTHWEST INDIANA STATE RUNNERS-UP

2002 Andrean 59ers (3A)
2001 Andrean 59ers (3A)
2001 Valparaiso Vikings (5A)
1997 Andrean 59ers (3A)
1996 Hobart Brickies (4A)
1994 Portage Indians (5A)
1993 Lake Central Indians (5A)
1990 Hobart Brickies (4A)
1990 River Forest Ingots (2A)
1987 Highland Trojans (5A)
1985 Hobart Brickies (4A)
1985 Valparaiso Vikings (5A)
1984 Hobart Brickies (4A)
1982 Hobart Brickies (3A)
1980 Hobart Brickies (3A)
1979 Hobart Brickies (3A)
 

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