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HOBART — Craig Osika walked into the Brickie Bowl in the late summer of 1994.

The then-freshman football player was awestruck taking it all in.

His Hobart Brickies had won the Class 4A state championship the year before, the program's fourth state crown in seven years. Hall of Fame coach Don Howell led the purple-and-gold charge.

'I was sitting on the back row in the locker room," Osika said. "I was a freshman."

Osika is now in his first season as Hobart's head coach. Doug Bloom is an assistant with him. Both got varsity time in '94 as ninth-graders. The whistle on the Hobart train was blowing loud in those days.

In 1994, the Bricks won the sectional but were upset by upstart Lowell in the regional.

In '95, Hobart got to the semistate and held a 21-0 halftime lead before falling to eventual state-champion Fort Wayne Wayne 28-21.

In '96, the Brickies steamrolled everyone on their way to the state championship game, where Indianapolis Cathedral took them out 27-7.

And in 1997, Osika's senior year, Hobart was shocked in the regional by Griffith, 35-21, as the Panthers went on to win state.

"If someone would've told us we'd never get to another state championship game in '96 I never would've believed them," Osika said. "We were Hobart. We got there all the time. And we haven't been back.

"That's what tell the kids every day. The goal is to play 15."

Playing "15" is getting to the state championship game, which Hobart has done 11 times since 1979. With 20 sectional titles, 14 regionals and nine semistates, Indianapolis had become a second home for Brickies fans in late November.

Then, after Osika's junior season, it all stopped.

"Our '97 team was one of the best teams ever, ranked No. 1 all season," Osika said. "We just didn't win state. No way, no way, would I ever believed we haven't gone back. That was the mindset back then. Every year.

"And we're working to get it back."

Hobart won 19 straight sectional championships then went 19 years before winning their next one in 2016. The '16 team had 27 seniors on the roster, The 2018 Brickies also have 27 seniors, plus a deep and talented sophomore class.

There is a lot of reasons for optimism in this storied football town.

"I think our senior class is a lot like the 2016 seniors," Hobart senior Sal Valle said. "They were all very vocal and tried to help the younger guys, like we're doing now. The competition is furious in practice now. We've known coach Osika was an up-and-coming coach and I'm excited to get to play for him."

Valle brought up something new in practice the Brickies are doing. The "Best on Best" drill at the end of workouts, where team volume and intensity flies into the sky.

"It's like the old days," senior Orion Yester said. "We're working a lot harder in practice this year, we really are. We trash talk each other as motivation, to get everyone fired up and to give it everything they've got."

And he has high remarks for the 10th-graders.

"Those guys bring the heat, like they're wearing metal boots with cleats. They give us depth and everyone is pushing each other. At practice no one is standing around anymore. Everyone's moving."

After Osika graduated, he played four seasons at Indiana University. He then played for the San Francisco 49ers, Cleveland Browns and Jacksonville Jaguars. The NFL experience has helped Osika as a coach.

He returned to Hobart as an assistant in 2005 and replaced Ryan Turley after last season.

"There is a lot more energy around camp this year," junior Matthew Benton said. "The competition is so incredible. At the end of practice the freshmen and sophomores are looking at you and they want to be on the field with you. It's exciting.

"Our sophomore group they are players. They are going to help us in a lot of ways."

Sounds a little like the old days, doesn't it?

"That's the goal, to bring all that back," Osika said. "We talk about it every day. We want to play 15. That's the goal and I want it to be here every year."

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Sports Reporter

Steve has won awards during two different stints at The Times. In addition to being the Prep Beat columnist, he covers football, boys basketball and boys track. He is a long-suffering Cubs fan.