The Bulldogs were one of the surprises of the 2015 season, winning 6 games and securing a Division V playoff berth. This season, Milton starts over with some talented underclassmen and a dedicated senior class.
West Milton – The Milton-Union Bulldogs surprised a lot of people last season.
After winning just five games in their first two seasons under head coach Mark Lane, the Bulldogs jumped off to a 4-1 start, finished 6-4 and secured a D-V playoff spot, where they lost a heartbreaking 35-34 first round decision to Greeneview.
“It’s been a good summer,” said Lane, as we sat in the Bulldog locker-room Tuesday afternoon. “The kids have been working hard. The seniors have been trying to figure out how to lead. They got their first taste of winning last season, and this summer has been a bit of a shock to them because now it’s on them to make sure that everyone knows what it takes.
“This senior group is special to me because they came in as freshmen when I came in as head coach. They are a product that no one else has touched. You take great pride in that, but you criticize yourself when things aren’t quite right. Whatever they are is what I’ve done.
“As a head coach, I never try to predict what will happen,” Lane explained when asked if he anticipated last year’s success. “There are a thousand things that could happen between now and the beginning of the season. My goal is to make those kids better every day. Put in the hard work and whatever comes out on Friday night is what it is.”
Lane said the turnaround began with the coaching staff.
“I learned pretty quickly that you have to have a great coaching staff. I have a staff that makes things easy on me. They allow me to be the head coach and push those kids along.
“The other key was our seniors. That group took the ownership of what we wanted to do. They weren’t super talented, but they worked hard, held everyone accountable, and got the most out of everyone.”
Lane said the key game of the season was actually a loss to the Bulldogs arch-rival.
“The turning point for us was actually the Tipp game (a 35-12 loss in week 3). You never want moral victories, but after that game we knew that we could play with those guys. We knew Tipp was as good as anyone we would play all season. So even though we lost, it gave us a lot of confidence going forward.”
The Tippecanoe-Milton rivalry has always been one of the top rivalries in the area, but will go on hiatus after this season.
“People in Tipp and people in Milton respect each other, but they don’t really like each other.” Lane said with a grin. “It’s an intense rivalry and unfortunately they have gotten the best of us recently. We have one more shot at them (At Tipp City in week 3.) There is a wide disparity between the two schools in population. I think that’s the main reason the series is being discontinued.”
Lane is very aware, as he begins his fourth season at his alma mater, that last season means nothing now.
“We want to build on what we have done, but in reality, you are starting over from scratch. These kids have got to understand that we don’t have 6 wins right now, we have no wins. We have to earn everything we get just like last year. You get out of it what you put in it. Last year was fun, but last year is over.
“We have about 55 kids on the team right now, a lot of freshmen. Whenever you have a playoff year, the younger kids want to get involved and play football. We have a small junior class, but a big sophomore class. We are not just a senior team, and that’s a good thing. When you are a small school, you are always going to have young players on the field.
Lane said most jobs are still wide open.
“We have great competition going on all over the field. There are probably three or four spots locked up, and even those guys have got to work and get better. We are always pushing competition in practice because it brings out the best in the kids. Competition always makes you better.”
The 2015 Bulldogs ran the ball on 82% of their offensive snaps, and Lane says that won’t change.
“That’s who we are,” he acknowledged. “We want to control the clock, wear down the other team, and dictate what they have to do. At the same time, we want to be able to throw when we want to, not when we have to.
Bulldogs to watch this year include offensive lineman Tyler Courtright, a 6-3, 210 pound junior, Keaton Lucous, a 5-11, 235 pound senior, Kiefer Jones, a 6-0 190 senior who will play on both lines, and Zach Shields, who as a 5-8, 150 pound sophomore ran for 1,049 yards and 9 touchdowns last season.
“Four tough kids,” praised their coach. “And there are a couple more who are on the verge of earning their spots.”
Two seniors, Blake Smith and Zach Vagedes, are in competition to start the season under center.
“Both are capable, smart kids who can do the job. Whoever doesn’t start there will have a starting spot elsewhere on the offense. Both are great kids, great leaders.”
Smith was the starter last year, completing 43% of his passes for 720 yards and 10 touchdowns. He was intercepted 6 times.
West Milton has always been a good football town, and Lane said his players are very aware of that traqdition.
“There are names in this town and all these kids know,” he said with a nod of his head. “Every league championship team’s picture is up in the locker-room, and the kids see them every day. Pictures of playoff teams also go on the wall, and when we made the playoffs last year, that’s all the kids talked about. ‘Our picture is going up on the wall.”
The Bulldogs playoff berth was the first since 2012, but it ended in heartbreak with a 35-34 loss to Greeneview.
“It took a long time to get over that loss,” remembered Lane. “We got way down and almost pulled off the greatest comeback that I have ever been a part of. We had the stadium rocking, but we just couldn’t get over the hump. It took a while to get over that I would never coach those seniors again. At the same time, it was a huge step for the program and we want to get back there again.”
Lane said in conclusion that the success of Bulldog football is very important to him, as a West Milton native.
“Even when I was in high school, it was my goal to get back here to West Milton. This place has given a lot to my family and that’s exactly what I wanted to do with my career. Give something back to a place that has given so much to my family.”