Bear Lake Looks to Begin New Streak

September 25, 2020

By Tom Spencer
Special for Second Half

When Bear Lake takes steps on the football field at Brethren tonight, the Lakers have a chance they never had last fall.

It’s a chance to win two games in a row and remain undefeated. Bear Lake is coming off a 26-6 win over Ashley last week, the Lakers’ first win since 2018. The victory sparked a lot of relief and a great celebration in the Bear Lake community. 

“It was a long time coming,” said assistant coach and offensive coordinator Samantha Mullet. “Seeing the guys get to experience the results of all their hard work was rewarding. 

“But it’s just the beginning,” she continued. “They’ve set the bar now. They know that feeling only comes if you’ve earned it.”

Mullet, who goes by Sam and Coach Sam, has been an assistant coach with head coach John Prokes since 8-player football began at Bear Lake four seasons ago. She was also an intern the summer of 2019 for the Baltimore Ravens and coach John Harbaugh.

The Lakers’ seniors who have played football since their freshman year are thrilled to take the field tonight. Wins have been hard to come by and they were 0-9 in 2019. COVID-19 nearly took away their chance to play football in 2020 and feel the jubilation of victory.  

It was long, hard summer of training not knowing the future of all MHSAA sports. The Lakers’ last victory was 28-18 over Big Rapids Crossroads Academy during the 2018 campaign.

“Participating in sports is one opportunity that provides our young adults with an experience that will only continue to help them with the trials and tribulations throughout their own life,” noted Prokes, who also teaches science in the middle and high school. “We are fortunate to have football at our school and in our community.  

“The memories we've established will last well beyond the wins and losses.”

Mullet and Prokes have been together since Bear Lake exited a football co-op with Onekama to start the exciting 8-player football option. It hasn’t been a smooth road, but both feel the ship is righted now and the future is bright. 

Bear Lake athletic director Karen Leinaar couldn’t be happier with the football program. She had never served a school district previously that didn’t offer football.  

“The cool thing was the community stepped up and the board made a commitment to football,” she said.  “They took a chance and it paid off.

“These two coaches have given hundreds and thousands of hours to these kids,” she continued. “Taking it from nothing to where it is today is great!” 

A new culture of football began this summer as training for a possible 2020 season began. Not knowing how COVID-19 would impact MHSAA sports, the Lakers embarked on significant changes.  

“With students having been out of school and away from each other since March, we felt it was important to get the kids together and active again, even if it was just for socially-distanced outdoor workouts,” recalled Mullet.  “They were really the shift from there – they showed up and worked hard day after day, even when the future of sports was uncertain.

“Their attitude and commitment made us realize this could be the group to really establish our program,” she continued.  “We’d been building, but without much of an identity. These guys committed to defining the vague ‘success’ we’ve always talked about and hashed out exactly how things were going to go down – what would be required of everyone and what would not be tolerated of anyone.”

The Lakers took their name and turned it into a “LAKES” acronym for core qualities that all players and coaches must be – Loyal, Accountable, Knowledgeable, Excellent, Resilient, and Selfless.

“We took an Edward Everett Hale quote and used it to establish our creed, Mullet said. ‘I am only one. But I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And because I cannot do everything, I will not refuse to do the something that I can do. What I can do, I should do. And what I should do, by the grace of God, I will.’”

The Lakers’ new creed and culture also came with new helmets featuring improved safety components to start the season. The helmets were made possible by a grant from the Manistee County Community Foundation.  

The Lakers were led offensively to victory Saturday afternoon by Bryce Harless and Jake Griffis. Harless connected on 5 of 8 passes for 100 yards and two touchdowns and rushed for 105 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Griffis had five receptions for 109 yards and two touchdowns.

Tate Aultman led the Lakers defensively with 10.5 tackles and a sack. Griffis and Quentin Ruize each had nine tackles and combined on a sack. Jack Cook recorded nine tackles.

“We are not the biggest team, by no means,” Prokes said after the Bears snapped their losing streak. “We’ll probably be outsized in every game we play, but we play with a lot of heart. 

“Our guys aren’t going to back down from anybody.” 

And, when they walk on the field for every practice and tonight’s game, each player must contribute, Mullet believes.

“Every single player has been instrumental in pushing our culture forward,” she said. “As our creed implies, if one person doesn’t do their job, doesn’t give 100 percent effort, doesn’t buy in, the whole team fails. 

“You may only have one job, but that one job is critical to the success of the whole team.” 

Prokes and Mullet are appreciative of tremendous support they've received from everyone in the Bear Lake community, especially the boosters.  

“The town has really embraced the team and has shown nothing but encouragement and patience with our development,” Mullet said. “They've enjoyed the experience that comes with having a football program including the tailgating, Friday Night lights, and even Saturday afternoons.”

And every Laker tonight will be playing with an undefeated helmet.

Tom Spencer is a longtime MHSAA-registered basketball and soccer official, and former softball and baseball official, and he also has coached in the northern Lower Peninsula area. He previously has written for the Saginaw News, Bay County Sports Page and Midland Daily News. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Bear Lake’s Jack Cook makes a move upfield during last week’s win over Ashley. (Middle) Bear Lake assistant Samantha Mullet, far left, during her Baltimore Ravens internship, with, following left to right, John Wolfe (co-founder of ShirtFaced), Tim Goins (coach from Japan’s X League) and Jordan Hogan (formerly at Cornell, now a new assistant coach for the Arizona Cardinals). (Below) Bear Lake head coach John Prokes in his science classroom. (Photos courtesy of the Bear Lake football program.)

Nightingale Embarking on 1st Season as College Football Head Coach

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

July 10, 2024

CJ Nightingale's family values, small-town upbringing and Christian faith steered the Mendon native into a career coaching college football.

Made In Michigan and Michigan Army National Guard logosNightingale, a 2010 Mendon High School graduate, is busily preparing for his first season as Belhaven University's eighth football coach. He was officially named the Blazers' head coach seven months ago, on Jan. 1.

Belhaven, a Division III school located in Jackson, Mississippi, competes in the USA South Athletic Conference.

Nightingale credits his love of coaching to his father Chris Nightingale and grandfather Charles Nightingale.

"It all started with my dad and grandfather. At one time they were both involved in coaching, and their general love for sports wore off on me," CJ Nightingale said.

Once CJ reached high school, his interest in athletics only intensified thanks to several people who made a big impact on him.

"I had the most wonderful experience attending school and participating in Mendon athletics,” Nightingale said. “We didn't always have the better athletes, but we were successful because of all the time and commitment put in by our coaches, teachers, administration along with parental and community support. Success is the result of many people who focus on the same cause."

Nightingale lettered in football, basketball and baseball at Mendon, earning four varsity letters in all three sports. He was named the St. Joseph Valley League's MVP in all three sports his senior year, and Mendon earned league titles in all three during Nightingale's senior year as well.

As a starting quarterback and defensive back his sophomore year, Nightingale led Mendon to the 2007 Division 7 football championship with the Hornets' 20-0 win over Traverse City St. Francis. Nightingale still holds the state record for career interceptions with 27.

Mendon had finished the 2006 season 3-6. A losing season remains rare in Mendon, and Nightingale stated it fueled the Hornets' title run the following season.

"I think losing is more difficult in football than in any other sport because of how much work goes into preparing for a season,” Nightingale recalled. “We were a very young team in 2006 and got punched in the mouth. It wasn't the best feeling, but it was a real learning experience and served as a big driving force that next season.

"All the hard times we endured the previous year served as a byproduct for our success in 2007. That team was unselfish, and not one player on the team cared who got the stats or accolades."

At Mendon, Nightingale played for legendary coach John Schwartz in football, David Swanwick in basketball and Glen Samson in baseball.

Lessons from Schwartz – a member of the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association's Hall of Fame – and Samson have especially stuck with Nightingale into adult life and his own coaching career.

"Coach Schwartz had a way of getting everyone on the same page not just on the field, but he taught you how to be the best version of yourself off the field in every-day life. Coach Samson knew how to get his players in the right positions on the diamond to make us successful," Nightingale said.

"The environment at Mendon solidified my desire to become a coach and teacher. The best leaders are also the best teachers, and when you are surrounded by people like that it makes a big difference."

Nightingale attended Wheaton College in Illinois, where he lettered in football four years as a defensive back and return specialist. During Nightingale's career, the Thunder posted a combined record of 34-8 and qualified for the NCAA Division III playoffs when he was a freshman.

After graduating college, Nightingale taught history and spent two years as the varsity football coach at Richmond High School in Indiana. In 2016 he secured his first collegiate coaching job at Greenville University (Ill.) as a defensive backs coach, where he spent one season. He then served as special teams coordinator and linebackers coach at Indiana Wesleyan University beginning in 2017 before returning to his alma mater Wheaton in 2019 as the Thunder's defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach.

Nightingale makes an open-field tackle against the Gladiators in the 2007 Division 7 Final. Nightingale coached 24 all-conference players, 10 all-region performers and seven All-Americans over his four seasons at Wheaton, and the Thunder made the Division III playoffs all four years.

The head football coaching position at Belhaven became available in December 2023 when previous coach Blaine McCorkle moved on to Division 1 Northwestern State (La.). Nightingale applied and went through a three-week interview process before being selected as the program’s next head coach.

"I truly feel like God has called my wife Shanel and I and our family here for a reason. We are going to pour into Belhaven as deeply as we can and see what life brings us,” CJ Nightingale said. “As a college football coach, you have the unique chance to pour into your players spiritually, academically, athletically and socially. That's what is really special about this profession."

Belhaven's program has enjoyed a lot of success, especially the past three seasons with a combined 24-7 record, including a 9-2 finish last fall.

"I am very fortunate to be taking over a strong program here at Belhaven. You don't sustain success, but rather you must be able to build on it," Nightingale said. "We are excited about this season after a great spring. This group of coaches and players got a lot done these past six months. We have had a lot of guys here on campus all summer working to get better. There are lot of goals in front of us that haven't been achieved yet. Two of those goals are to go undefeated in conference play and host a playoff game.”

CJ and Shanel have three children, including 5-year old daughter Charlotte, 3-year old son Trey and 14-month old daughter Coco. They are expecting a fourth child in mid-September.

2024 Made In Michigan

June 28: E-TC's Witt Bulldozing Path from Small Town to Football's Biggest Stage - Read

PHOTOS (Top) At left, Mendon’s CJ Nightingale (2) celebrates during his team’s 2007 championship win over Traverse City St. Francis at Ford Field; at right Nightingale is pictured with his wife Shanel and children Charlotte, Trey and Coco. (Middle) Nightingale makes an open-field tackle against the Gladiators in the 2007 Division 7 Final. (Family photo courtesy of CJ Nightingale.)