Fast start, gut-wrenching ending
In the first quarter, Kobza immediately slowed down Penn’s attacking defense by executing a successful screen pass on the Brickies’ first offensive play. He would keep the chains moving, he recalls, on the drive with his feet, scrambling for two third-down conversions. On first-and-goal from the Penn 7-yard line, he took off running again.
“I did a scramble and got hit at the goal line and from both sides,” Kobza says. “I thought I got in, and then I heard the crowd of 8,000 or 10,000 people. Then I knew: ‘I got in. That’s a touchdown.’ People were going crazy. I thought, ‘Game on. This is gonna be pretty cool.'”
“All of a sudden,” recalls Lach, “it was like, ‘We can play with these guys, we can beat these guys.”
So it remained, deadlocked, until the middle of the fourth quarter, when the Brickies drove down the field and scored on a first-and-goal run from the 1 by Mark Drobac with 4:10 to play. Drobac was an unlikely hero, replacing the Brickies’ usual starting running back Joe Riley, who was out with an untimely knee injury. The teams then traded defensive stops, and Hobart had to punt. With about a minute to play, Hobart led 27-20 and the excitement at the Brickie Bowl rose to unprecedented levels.Hobart would tack on another score later in the quarter, but a couple of Kobza interceptions would, he recalls, allow the Kingsmen to get right back into it at 14-14. So it would go all evening, with Hobart inching ahead and the No. 1-ranked Kingsmen clawing right back. At one point, Hobart scored to make it 20-14, then missed the extra point. When Penn scored a subsequent touchdown, it obliged by missing its point-after kick, as well.
Part of the mystique of the no-longer-in-use Brickie Bowl was the notion that people watched from near the train tracks looming over the visiting bleachers, or from sturdy tree limbs in the same vicinity. All true. Now, they watched as Penn sent in its punt block unit, placing 10 men at the line of scrimmage, Nonetheless, the Penn returner Steve Stuskie found open field, then broke tackle after tackle with no return scheme set up. Then, just as suddenly, as he surged deep into Hobart territory, he put the ball on the ground, and it just kept rolling.
The Brickies’ Lach remembers having a clear shot at the recovery.
“I’m watching this and people are slipping and sliding and falling all over the place,” he says, recalling the rain that had been steady throughout the last few minutes of the game. “I’m chasing him from an angle, somebody hit him and he fumbled and the ball scooted on the ground. I dove on it, but it was too wet and one of their guys took the ball away from me.”
That guy was Corey Yeoman, Penn’s current head coach and the winner of two semistate titles and seven regional titles since he took over the program in 2003.
“I went to the sidelines crying,” Lach says. “I thought we lost the game. I had a chance to be the hero and, oh, no, now I’m the goat.”
After two incompletions into the end zone, Penn had five seconds to work with to either force overtime or go for two points and the win. Instead, Hobart’s Dave Negrelli intercepted the last-ditch toss from the Hobart 12. The game plan had worked. Kobza, despite the conditions, threw for 254 yards on 21-of-34 passing.
“He just killed us that night,” Keller recalls. “He had guys hanging on him. I was thinking, ‘How the hell did he get rid of it?’ He was spot-on. Time and time again he broke our backs. We’d have him third and long and almost every time they had to have a play, he did it.”
At the same time, the war of attrition came at a price. The Brickies lost several starters over the course of the epic game to injury. Kobza himself broke the navicular bone on his throwing hand late in the game. He would play in the state championship game against Columbus East the next week, then miss the first six weeks of the basketball season.
The Brickies lost 21-14 to Columbus East, but would go on to win four state titles and make 11 state championship appearances, including the ’79 game, in less than two decades that followed. Penn has been to the state championship game 10 times since then, eight times under Geesman and twice under Yeoman. But the one that got away still hurts.
“I don’t think it really hit me until a few years later how good of a game it was and everything that went into it,” Keller says. “We were just completely devastated for weeks after that game. They had to scrape us all off the floor to get us off the bus. Guys were crying. Guys were hyperventilating in there. We couldn’t believe it was all over.”
For Hobart, despite all that has come since, the 1979 victory over No. 1 and unchallenged Penn perhaps stands tallest of all. The 27 points scored by the Brickies matched the total that the Kingsmen had given up all season to that point. As the Don Howell era fades into the past – it has now been 17 years since Griffith beat the Brickies in the 1997 Class 4A regional to effectively end the Hobart era of dominance in the Region – the victory over Penn grows with significance with each passing year.
“You’re thinking it’s a big game,” Kobza says. “You don’t realize that 35 years later, we’re gonna be having this conversation.”