By Josh Brown
WEST MILTON — The Milton-Union Bulldogs have been united by a common goal all season.
A setback only brought them even closer together.
After an overtime loss to eventual Southwestern Buckeye League Buckeye Division champion Carlisle cost them a shot at the league title, the Bulldogs have won three straight blowouts, including a 55-18 blowout of fifth-seeded Aiken to open the Division V, Region 20 playoffs last week. Now fourth-seeded Milton-Union must prepare for a regional semifinal matchup against the top seed, undefeated Cincinnati Hills Christian Academy, Saturday at Miamisburg High School.
“The kids are really starting to figure out that if they work together, a lot of good things can happen,” Milton-Union coach Mark Lane said. “They’re really starting to trust each other and are becoming a true team. The guys are really gelling well right now.”
Milton-Union (8-3) began the season by winning five of its first six games, but a narrow defeat at the hands of Brookville, a regional finalist last season, began a brief two-game losing streak. The next week, Milton-Union forced overtime against Carlisle but lost a hard-fought game 34-28 — and that matchup proved to be the SWBL Buckeye championship game.
Since that game, the Bulldogs have scored at least 55 points in three straight games to close the season, routing Dixie 55-19 and Waynesville 56-7 to close the regular season and earn a home game to open the playoffs for the second straight season. They then won their first playoff game since 2012 by obliterating Aiken 55-18.
“They (Aiken) definitely had some weapons,” Lane said. “Our kids knew that if they played solid defense that they’d have a chance to beat them. The kids played hard and had a great result by the effort they’ve been putting in.
“We challenge them every day to get better and better. We tell them that you’ve got the choice to get better or get worse every day, and they’ve definitely made the choice to get better.”
Now, the Bulldogs will face their toughest challenge yet as they travel to Miamisburg to face the CHCA Eagles (11-0).
Aside from a five-point win over Taft, 33-28 in Week 4, the Eagles have won every game by 18 points or more. They began the season with a 41-22 blowout of Greeneview — which edged the Bulldogs in the opening round of the playoffs by one point last season — and had wins over three other playoff teams during the regular season: Bishop Ready, Taft and Summit Country Day.
CHCA opened the playoffs last week with a rout, as well, ending Blanchester’s five-game winning streak with a 42-0 shutout to advance to Saturday’s regional semifinal round.
“They (CHCA) have some really impressive wins,” Lane said. “They’re an extremely good football team that is well coached, and they have a lot of offensive and defensive weapons.”
The Bulldogs have shown that they have a number of weapons, too, though, despite no one reaching the 1,000-yards rushing mark during the regular season. A powerful duo led the ground game, with Krue Thwaits piling up 909 yards and 11 touchdowns on 156 carries and Zac Shields adding 804 yards and nine touchdowns on 131 carries during the regular season. Dual threat Blake Smith led the team in receiving with 502 yards and five touchdowns on 27 receptions, while also adding 428 rushing yards and three touchdowns on 62 carries. Quarterback Zach Vagedes threw for 1,028 yards and 10 touchdowns this season, going 63 for 121 passing.
Smith had a pair of rushing touchdowns and one receiving touchdown in the win over Aiken, Thwaits had a rushing and a receiving touchdown and Shields added a score on the ground, with Vagedes also throwing a 60-yard touchdown to William Morris and Robbie Grove adding a late rushing touchdown.
But for Lane, the bigger goal is to slow down the Eagles’ potent attack.
“We’re going to have to play solid defense,” Lane said. “And offensively, we’re going to have to play assignment football.”
The last time the Bulldogs won a playoff game, they followed it up with another one, reaching the regional championship game in 2012 — despite entering the playoffs as a No. 7 seed, defeating both No. 2 Westfall and No. 3 Norwood that season before falling to top-seeded and eventual state champion Clinton-Massie.
What will the Bulldogs need to get back to the regional final this season?
More hard work and unity.
“Honestly, we’re going to have to focus on every play and take it one play at a time,” Lane said. “We have to give great effort and work as a team.”
Contact Josh Brown at (937) 552-2132, or follow @TroyDailySports on Twitter.