ZEPHYRHILLS — His team hadn’t even taken infield practice, and Craig Milburn was already choking up.
When the Zephyrhills softball coach walked from the dugout before the first pitch, he wiped his eyes.
And when a former player listed accolade after accolade before the final home game for one of Pasco County’s most successful coaches, Milburn held his grandson tight in his arms and bit his lip. After 32 years teaching basketball, baseball and softball in Bulldogs orange and black, his time is almost up.
“A little choked up,” Milburn said, “but it’s been a fun night — a fun 32 years. Zephyrhills has been good to me.”
And he has been good to it.
The Kentucky native spent 28 years as the school’s athletic director and has won 561 games across three sports. He arrives early to rake the infield with his red tractor and offers to stay late to help girls hit. He backs his black pickup truck against the outfield fence just like everyone else.
According to the Florida High School Athletic Association, Milburn has guided the Bulldogs to the playoffs twice in boys basketball, five times in baseball and five more times in softball. His resume includes four conference titles and coach of the year honors in 2010.
“He’s honestly the best coach I’ve ever had,” sophomore Lindsey Hupp said.
Her father would probably say the same. Jeff Hupp played baseball for Milburn almost 30 years ago and now serves as his assistant coach.
To Milburn, it’s another one of many second-generation families he has coached. To Hupp, it’s a connection to her dad and the old newspaper clippings she remembered seeing as a kid.
“I think that is the most coolest thing ever,” Hupp said.
Milburn’s impending retirement has inspired Zephyrhills after the Bulldogs missed the playoffs the past two years. Zephyrhills (18-6) is the top seed in next week’s Class 5A, District 8 tournament and has its most wins since advancing to the Class 4A region semifinals in 2010.
Friday night, the Bulldogs needed only five innings to cap Milburn’s celebration with a 10-0 victory over Sunlake.
“He’s worked so hard for all this,” said pitcher Karisten Deem, who carried a no-hitter into the fifth inning. “I think he gave us all the energy we had, to do it for Coach.”
Milburn said he was pleased with his 14 girls’ positive attitudes in the regular-season finale, and he seemed equally proud at the crowd that came to tell him goodbye.
Administrators and former players — including two from 30 years ago — cheered from bleachers they had decorated with streamers. They greeted him with cake and plaques and a card and hugs.
“One of the greatest things I look at it (is) when somebody you haven’t seen for 20, 25 years, and they come up and say, ‘Coach,’ ” Milburn said. “That’s just a very big word for me.”
And that’s part of what has kept him going across four decades.
He stepped down from his jobs as PE teacher and AD in 2009 but stuck with softball, vowing to guide this year’s senior class through four seasons. Now those days are running short.
Zephyrhills has been one of Pasco County’s top teams all spring but will likely face a tough Gulf team in the district semifinals with a trip to the playoffs at stake. The postseason is a realistic possibility but far from guaranteed.
Whenever the season ends, Milburn plans to head home to Kentucky, where he hopes to get a job coaching college softball. His final Bulldogs team is trying to send him there a winner, with a flourish worthy of 32 years of service.
“I think it’d mean a lot to all of us,” Deem said. “I think it’d be what he deserves.”
Three other stories to watch
1. River Ridge's playoff run: The Royal Knights have established themselves as the clear No. 1 team in the North Suncoast — and one of the best in the state. River Ridge (24-1) is ranked second in Class 6A in the latest Miracle Sports poll and boasts a loaded, young roster that went to the region finals last year. The school's first trip to state since 2004 seems within reach.
2. Hernando County's depth: Hernando is the cream of the county with enough talent to make it back to the playoffs for the first time since 2005, and the Leopards could have some company. Central and Springstead are among the top seeds in Class 6A, District 6 and could both advance to the postseason.
3. Academy at the Lakes: The Wildcats were young last year during their run to the Class 2A region final. Skyler and Sydney Boynton and USF commit Lauren Evans are older and more seasoned with hopes of advancing even farther this spring.
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 4 Gaither vs. No. 5 Wiregrass Ranch, 7; Wednesday — No. 1 Chamberlain vs. Gaither/Wiregrass winner, 4:30; No. 2 Freedom vs. No. 3 Steinbrenner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Where: Ocala West Port
Schedule: Monday — No. 4 Lecanto vs. No. 5 West Port, 7; Tuesday — No. 2 Citrus vs. No. 3 Springstead, 5; No. 1 Central vs. Lecanto/West Port winner, 7; Thursday — final, 7
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 5 Land O’Lakes vs. No. 4 Sunlake, 7; Wednesday — No. 3 Tarpon Springs vs. No. 2 Mitchell, 4; No. 1 River Ridge vs. LOL/Sunlake winner, 7; April 19 — final, 7
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 4 Crystal River vs. No. 5 Nature Coast, 5:30; No. 3 Eustis vs. No. 6 Dunnellon, 7; Thursday — No. 2 Tavares vs. Eustis/Dunnellon winner, 5:30; No. 1 Hernando vs. Crystal River/Nature Coast winner, 7; April 19 — final, 7
Schedule: Monday — No. 2 Pasco vs. No. 7 Anclote, 4:30; No. 1 Zephyrhills vs. No. 8 Ridgewood, 7; Tuesday — No. 4 Gulf vs. No. 5 Fivay, 4:30; No. 3 Hudson vs. No. 6 Wesley Chapel, 7; Wednesday — Pasco/Anclote winner vs. Hudson/Wesley Chapel winner, 4:30; Zephyrhills/Ridgewood winner vs. Gulf/Fivay winner, 7*; April 19 — final, 7
*Semifinal times flop if Zephyrhills loses Monday
Where: Seffner Christian
Schedule: Monday — No. 4 Tampa Prep vs. No. 5 Brooks DeBartolo, 4:30; Tuesday — No. 1 Carrollwood Day vs. Tampa Prep/Brooks DeBartolo winner, 2:30; No. 2 Seffner Christian vs. No.3 Bishop McLaughlin, 5; Thursday — final, 5
Where: Hernando Christian
Schedule: Tuesday — No. 2 Hernando Christian vs. No. 3 Seven Rivers Christian, 4:30; Thursday — No. 1 Academy at the Lakes vs. HCA/SRC winner, 4:30