Challenges Conquered, Resilient P-W Raises Title Trophy Again

By Scott DeCamp
Special for

November 27, 2021

DETROIT – The 11 on the field for Pewamo-Westphalia’s football team may have looked different at any given time this season because of mounting injuries, but no worries for the Pirates.

They just kept playing. Consequently, they continue to add MHSAA Finals hardware to the trophy case.

In a defensive battle of unbeatens and mirror images, senior Dak Ewalt’s 35-yard touchdown burst with 5:50 remaining lifted perennial power P-W to a 14-10 victory over first-time Finals qualifier Lawton in the MHSAA Division 7 title game Saturday at Ford Field. It was the fourth title in six years for the Pirates.

“Just the resiliency that this group had. There were so many times this year when we could have broke, but they just seemed to get stronger,” said P-W coach Jeremy Miller, who improved to 105-9 in nine seasons at the helm.

“I can’t really explain it, but it just makes you proud as a coach to see them get through that.”

P-W capped its third 14-0 season in six years. The Pirates added to their trophy case, which already features awards from 2016, 2017 and 2019 championships, plus runner-up finishes in 2011 and 2015.

It definitely wasn’t easy this season, however. A number of key players missed significant time with injuries. For example, Ewalt was sidelined by a broken arm at the start of the season and missed last week’s 28-21 Semifinal victory over Traverse City St. Francis because of a concussion.

When the speedy 5-foot-9, 180-pound Ewalt got the call Saturday, he was ready. 

After Lawton (13-1) took a 10-7 lead in the hard-fought game on senior Ethan O’Donnell’s 43-yard field goal with 10:06 left – the fifth-longest field goal in 11-Player Finals history – Ewalt and the Pirates answered. He took a dive handoff and sprinted untouched for what proved to be the winning TD.

“It meant a lot, coming here together, duking it out with a really good team over there,” said Ewalt, who finished with a game-high 61 yards on eight carries. “Just a really heart-felt moment – couldn’t believe it.”

Lawton coach Wade Waldrup, who is 30-4 in four seasons, shouldered the blame for having the Blue Devils in the wrong defensive scheme on P-W’s game-winning TD.

Miller believed that eventually P-W would find a crease, and the Pirates did.

Division 7 Football Final“I know for a while it looked like we were just banging into a brick wall, but they were bringing so many guys, we thought if we could find that crease, then he’d be gone,” Miller said. “Dax’s a tremendous runner. This guy’s put in a ton of work in the weight room, and I’m so happy to see him break to that next level because I knew once he got there, he was gone.”

It took a while for Lawton to gets its footing in the game. The Blue Devils exhibited some early jitters. 

They fumbled on the game’s first play from scrimmage. Three plays later, P-W senior quarterback Cam Cook scored on a 3-yard keeper around right end to stake the Pirates to a 7-0 lead less than two minutes into the contest. 

P-W stayed in attack mode, as the Pirates recovered an onside kick. They drove into the red zone, but Lawton’s defense tightened and the Blue Devils settled into the flow of the game.

It was a brand-new game with 1:13 left in the half, when Lawton senior QB Landon Motter hit junior Luke Leighton on a 41-yard strike down the sideline to knot the score at 7.

“You watched the game, it took us about 5 seconds to get over it,” Waldrup said. “We had the long pass (34 yards from P-W’s Cook to Brock Thelen, setting up Cook’s TD) and we had the fumble, and that was it. From that point on, I would say (that) Pewamo would say we played them even except for one play at the end of the game.”

P-W finished with a 240-204 edge in total offense, including a 139-86 advantage in rushing yards. Seniors Ashtin Wirth (fumble recovery) and Landon Nurenberg led the Pirates defense with eight tackles apiece.

Lawton senior all-stater Jake Rueff, who entered with a state-leading 49 total TDs (46 rushing), managed only 50 yards on 16 carries. He closed his spectacular season with 2,367 yards on the ground.

Motter finished the game 8-of-17 passing for 118 yards with one interception. Senior Drew Stephayn paced Lawton’s defense with a game-high 10 stops, while junior Carter Cosby had nine tackles and a pick.

Lawton’s run to Ford Field was a long time in the making. Seven seniors had started on the varsity team since their sophomore seasons. The Blue Devils put their small southwestern Michigan town on the map and captivated the community.

“It’s legendary. I mean, Lawton’s never seen anything like it,” Motter said with red eyes during the postgame press conference. “We haven’t even won a District title before this year, and then we won a District and then we went on to win a Regional and a Semifinal, and here we are.”

And here are the Pirates – hoisting another state-title trophy.

There were plenty of challenges for P-W, which was saddled by injuries all season long. In the third game, senior back Tanner Wirth – an all-stater as a sophomore – was lost to injury. In consecutive weeks, Cook and Thelen were injured. Connor Pohl and Cade Stump also suffered injuries. 

Miller noted that many of his team’s injuries happened in freakish ways.

“It’s a next-man-up thing. These guys all train, and they’ve all got to be ready – they know that,” Miller said. “Being a small school, you know, if somebody goes out, we’re not really deep. They just do a great job being ready.”

Cook suffered a knee injury in Week 5 that he thought might cost him the season. He returned in last week’s victory over St. Francis and split reps with junior Troy Wertman.

For the Cook and Pirates, it was all about being ready when your number is called. On Saturday, Cook scored the game’s first TD, and he kept the Blue Devils defense honest by going 6-of-15 passing for 101 yards with one pick.

“Just going down with an injury, it was really hard for me in my senior year,” Cook said, “and to fight back, rehab back into this position, it’s just amazing to come out like this.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTO (Top) Pewamo-Westphalia’s Dak Ewalt celebrates his fourth-quarter score that proved the game winner Saturday. (Middle) The Pirates’ Troy Wertman (17) looks to elude Lawton’s Kallon Motter (8) and Carter Cosby (2). (Photos by Hockey Weekly Action Photos.)

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.)