Shugarts’ passion for hometown has inspired Trojans to defy expectations

Newsflash: 74 is the new 40.

If you don’t believe this, just drive up U.S. 22-522 west to Mount Union and visit with Trojan football coach Dayton Shugarts.

Time stands still, it seems, for Dayton. He doesn’t look his age – more like 25 years younger. His boundless energy and enthusiasm, especially for football and Mount Union Area High School, is contagious.

“I am a Mount Union person. I was born and raised here, went to school here and graduated in 1957,” Shugarts said during Mount Union media day in August. ” I played ball here, came back in 1962, and spent almost 40 years teaching here, so I have a vested interest in this school system. That’s why I’m here right now. I want to try and give back to them what I can and this is one way to do it.”

Shugarts returned for a third time to revive the program after a 2-8 campaign in 2012 that was full of tragedy, heartache and loss. What he’s done in 2013 is nothing short of amazing.

Despite losing a plethora of seniors from last season, under the guidance of Shugarts the kids started to believe and belief, what a powerful thing it is, translated into victories. Mount Union is 6-1 on the season with its only loss coming at the hands of state-ranked Bellwood-Antis.

A playoff berth is certain with the Trojans ranked second in the District 6 Class AA rankings with 740 points. Only Richland, unbeaten and ranked third in the state, is above them.

There is zero fluff in Shugarts, just tons of substance. He’s down to earth with a homespun, self-deprecating sense of humor. You can’t help but like him.

This is the main reason kids want to play for him. He doesn’t berate, he teaches. His passion for the game rubs off on his charges. He develops and nurtures their confidence. They want to win for him.

He’s coached in three different decades and despite the drastic changes to the game, Shugarts and his principles and philosophies remain steadfast. Good, hard all-out effort wins football games. Line it up and grind it out. Play tough, play physical and never quit. These are not just mantras for Dayton, they are life lessons he imparts to every student-athlete who plays for him.

He not only teaches these young men the game of football, he equips them for this journey called life.

This may be his greatest coaching effort yet. Mount Union wasn’t even a footnote in football circles as the 2013 season began. There were zero expectations of any significant improvement from the Trojans. Two, maybe three wins was expected. Another year of losing was on the horizon.

Shugarts paid no attention to the prognosticators or predictions. He was confident right from the start of camp.

“I hope we can go undefeated. That is your ultimate goal. My primary goal is to win the first game and then the second game. Hopefully that happens week to week,” Shugarts said back in August. “I just want the boys to be respectable on the field and play the game the way it’s meant to be played. We want to play smash-mouth football and play to our potential. I believe if we don’t get any key injuries we should do well.”

As John Madden said, “confidence is a nice cologne.” Shugarts instilled confidence right from the start of camp and the kids drank the Kool-Aid. Winning – lots of it – followed.

The schedule doesn’t get easier. After playing winless West Branch Friday, Tussey Mountain (currently 6-1) will be tough. The good news is the game is at home. Mount Union ends the regular season with Penns Valley (3-4 at present), so a 9-1 regular season is possible.

Who would have expected that at the start of the season?

Only one person – Dayton Shugarts.

Mount Union football has returned to relevance and a 74-year-old is responsible for it. You can’t write a better story than that.

I don’t know how long Dayton will stay on to helm the Trojans, but he’s proven two things beyond a shadow of a doubt – you can teach an old dog new tricks and age really is just a number.

And those are good lessons for all of us to remember.

Brian Carson is a Sentinel correspondent.