By Josh Brown
WEST MILTON — During the 2017 season, the Milton-Union football team saw a new all-time leading rusher take over the top of the program’s leaderboards.
After the season, the Bulldogs saw the departure of coach Mark Lane — and the return of the man Lane took over for in 2013.
Throughout the year, though, Milton-Union struggled in games it needed to win to put it over the top, finishing with a 4-6 overall record and missing out on a trip to the Division V, Region 20 playoffs after playing in the postseason in back-to-back seasons and even winning a Week 11 game the previous year.
The Bulldogs were still competitive throughout the season, though, something they showed in Week 1 against Miami East to open the season. The Vikings have been the traditional opener for the Bulldogs in recent memory, but this game was more important, as Miami East moved up to D-V, Region 20 — the same playoff region as the Bulldogs. And East held a 9-3 lead for the majority of the game before scoring an insurance touchdown with four minutes to play, then the Vikings picked off a pass on their own 15-yard line late in the game to seal a 17-3 win. The Vikings would go on to go 9-1 in the regular season and take the No. 1 seed in D-V, Region 20 in its first season as a member.
“When it came time to keep our foot on the pedal, we just didn’t do it,” Lane said after the game. “We’ve got to take the victory in the field position battle. We just got outplayed in that game. The kids know it, too. We’ve got to be honest with ourselves, look in the mirror — and get it fixed.”
The next week would be more of the same, though, as Oakwood held a two-score lead the majority of the game and held on to hand the Bulldogs a 31-21 loss on the road. But in Week 3, Milton-Union opened the home portion of its schedule with a dominant 29-13 victory over Northwestern, leading from start to finish. Zac Shields piled up 182 yards on the ground, rushing for one score and catching another through the air to lead the way.
Week 4 was the big one for Shields, though. The Bulldog senior churned out 181 yards before halftime and finished with 204 yards and four touchdowns to lead Milton-Union to a 69-35 victory — becoming the Bulldogs’ all-time leading rusher in the process.
“It was crazy,” Shields said of breaking the record. “I’ve been chasing Stephan Deeter’s record for the last three years. It’s been a goal since seventh grade, and I was just happy to break it. (It took) a lot of hard work. I’ve got to thank my offensive line for getting me there, and my coaches for giving me the chance to do what I do.”
“The first thing he did after he broke the record was thank the whole team for accomplishing that goal,” Lane said of Shields. “He’s the epitome of a Milton football player, and he’s exactly what we want out of a Milton football player — he’s an undersized kid who just plays his heart out and has worked hard for what he’s got.”
That was the last bright spot for a few weeks, though, as the Bulldogs dropped their next three straight. First was a 29-6 loss to Preble Shawnee to end their three-game homestand, then a 46-0 loss at eventual Southwestern Buckeye League Buckeye Division champion Madison. A back-and-forth battle against Brookville finished off the skid as the Blue Devils held on for a 49-35 win in Week 7.
Milton-Union finished the season strong, though, as Shields turned in another big performance in Week 8 against Carlisle. He ran for 187 yards and scored three touchdowns, including a 28-yarder in the third quarter to tie the score and a season-long 74-yarder in the fourth quarter to propel the Bulldogs to a 35-28 victory.
After a 38-35 setback at Dixie in Week 9, Milton-Union closed out the season on the road with a 35-12 victory over Waynesville to finish with a 3-3 record in SWBL Buckeye play.
Following the completion of the season, Lane — who also became Milton-Union’s athletic director at the beginning of 2017 — stepped down as the football team’s coach to focus on that new role. He was 23-30 as the team’s coach with the Bulldogs qualifying for the playoffs in 2015 and 2016, including the team’s first playoff victory since the 2012 season in 2016.
Still, the play on the field wasn’t what Lane liked about the football job.
“The highlights have absolutely got to be working with the boys,” he said. “Growing the boys into young men, I will cherish that forever. And I will continue to cherish it in the athletic director role. There’s nothing more powerful in this world, in my opinion, than being able to work with young boys and turn them into young men.
“That’s why you do this. That’s why you get into this business. And that’s why I’ve really learned to enjoy the athletic director role, because now my influence has extended big time.”
And returning to the role in 2018 will be Bret Pearce, the man he took over for in 2013. Pearce guided the Bulldogs to the playoffs six times between 2000 and 2012, including the program’s first-ever playoff appearance and victory, as well as regional championship appearances in 2006 and 2012. He has served as Milton-Union’s offensive coordinator under Lane since 2015.
“I missed it,” he said. “The two years I took off where I did nothing at all were rough in some ways. More than anything, I missed the kids. It’s great to see the kids develop. I found nothing that could replace it. I feel like getting to coach kids is a pretty unique experience. I’m in a situation now with my own kids where this works out pretty well. My oldest son is in college and my younger son is a sophomore. He’s in the marching band, but most of their competitions are on Saturdays, so I can still see him perform.
“I was in shock (Lane) hung it up, because I knew how much he enjoyed coaching. But now he’s going to have a lot of opportunities to help kids in different ways as athletic director. When he asked me, I didn’t have to think about it too long. I just wanted to make sure I was making the right decision. I didn’t want to rush into anything. When time didn’t change my mind, that just further solidified it.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.