WEST MILTON — The Milton-Union football team began 2019 knowing that, by 2021, they would be in a new league.
The Bulldogs ended the season in the Division IV playoffs.
Milton-Union began last season on a roll, winning its first five games and eventually finishing second in the Southwestern Buckeye League Buckeye Division standings with a 5-1 division record. The Bulldogs also qualified for the D-IV, Region 16 playoffs by earning the No. 8 seed, eventually falling in the opening round to top-seeded Cincinnati Wyoming.
Before the season, Milton-Union announced it would be joining the newly-formed Three Rivers Conference beginning in fall of 2021. But Bulldog coach Bret Pearce said that his team wasn’t concerned with that yet.
“I’ve got a group of juniors and seniors this year that are never going to be in that league,” he said. “We’re not worried about that at all right now. We’re going to focus on doing as much damage as we can do in the SWBL in the next two years.”
And they showed just how much damage they were capable of doing.
In the season opener at Miami East, the Bulldogs jumped out to a 24-0 lead after one quarter and led 32-7 by halftime, eventually closing out a 46-15 victory. Senior A.J. Lovin set a single-game scoring record for Milton-Union.
“He had six touchdowns, two of our two-point conversions and also kicked an extra point, so he set a school record tonight for points scored in one game,” Pearce said. “He’s shown flashes in the past and did some really nice things. But he really kind of broke out of his shell tonight. And he’s definitely going to be a force the rest of the season.”
That statement proved to be true, as he ended up being named the SWBL Buckeye’s Offensive Player of the Year, finishing the regular season with 677 rushing and 605 receiving yards and 12 touchdowns each, as well as two kickoff return, two punt return and two interception return touchdowns.
In Week 2, Milton-Union rolled on, cruising to a 51-22 victory over Oakwood, and then the Bulldogs passed a tough Week 3 test with a 27-21 victory over Northwestern. The Warriors scored late to make it a one-possession game, but Milton-Union was able to grind out the clock for the win.
“They scored with about eight minutes left, and we didn’t give them the ball back,” Pearce said. “I was proud of our offensive line. We ground out that last eight minutes and took a knee on about their 10-yard line. We converted two fourth downs on that drive, and that’s on the O-line and the backs running hard.”
Milton-Union then opened divison play in Week 4 against another 3-0 team, Northridge, and the Bulldogs left little doubt with a 47-8 win. And then in Week 5, the Bulldogs took on Madison on the road and trailed 21-15 in the fourth quarter. But a 75-yard touchdown pass from Nathan Brumbaugh to Blake Brumbaugh and a 1-yard touchdown run by Lovin gave them a 30-21 victory and made them 5-0.
Against Waynesville in Week 6, though, the Bulldogs simply couldn’t overcome a slow start, falling behind 21-0 by halftime and losing to the eventual Buckeye Division champion Spartans 35-21. Milton-Union bounced back by grinding out an 18-13 victory against Preble Shawnee, but it lost in a barn-burner in Week 8 against Valley View, falling 49-48 in overtime — a defeat that put the Bulldogs’ backs against the wall, as they needed to win their final two games to have a chance at qualifying for the playoffs.
The Bulldogs did just that, though, crushing Dixie 54-7 in Week 9 and Carlisle 49-13 in Week 10 to earn the eighth and final playoff spot in the D-IV, Region 16 standings. That set up a Week 11 matchup against undefeated Cincinnati Wyoming on the road — Milton-Union’s first playoff berth since 2016.
“They’re really excited to be back in the playoffs,” Pearce said. “These seniors got to experience it their freshman year, but then we’ve gone the last two without making it. They got to see what it’s like from the sidelines their freshman year, and they’re definitely excited to experience it for themselves.”
In the end, though, Wyoming quarterback Evan Prater — the eventual Mr. Football Ohio — scored five rushing touchdowns and threw for another, accounting for 322 yards himself in a 49-18 Bulldog defeat.
“He’s really good, and they’re a very good team,” Pearce said or Prater and the Cowboys, who lost to eventual D-IV state champion Clyde in the state semifinal round. “And the way their receivers block downfield just shows how well coached that team is. They’re definitely going to make some more noise. We played with a lot of heart, and I think that’s what we’ve seen all year from these guys. We weren’t always the biggest team on the field, but we had big hearts, and I think that showed to everyone that came out and watched tonight.
“This group was so fun because of the leadership shown by the seniors and the way the team just all played together. We didn’t have cliques or groups. This really was one team, and they played their hearts out for each other all season.”