Chance Paying Off Big for Sturgis Again

By Wes Morgan
Special for MHSAA.com

September 30, 2020

The entirety of 2020 thus far has been a matter of conjecture. Trying to predict anything with any degree of certainty – including the sporting world – has proved to be a worthless expenditure of time.

That the Sturgis High School varsity football team would have as many victories in the first two weeks of the season as it had in the previous two years certainly wouldn’t have been the most absurd thought for Trojans fans. But based on recent history, it surely didn’t seem like the most likely scenario.

And it wasn’t the kind of lofty expectation anyone wanted to throw on the back of first-year head coach Chance Stewart, who was hired June 4. 

The 2-0 start is the first for Sturgis since 2003. The 25-21 win over rival Three Rivers to start the year broke a seven-game losing streak for the Trojans, who finished 4-23 over the last three years.

Toss in the fact that the season itself almost didn’t materialize due to COVID-19 restrictions in the state, and that like every other program in Michigan, Sturgis will participate in the playoffs following an abbreviated regular season – and there’s a much louder buzz around town these days.

It will be only the Trojans’ third postseason appearance since Stewart’s final prep game at quarterback in Orange and Black in 2013 — a 16-0 Pre-District loss at St. Joseph. He went on to a brief stint at Western Michigan University and a phenomenal career at Hillsdale College, which yielded a G-MAC Player of the Year award, a single-season school and league record of 3,588 passing yards en route to a conference championship in 2018 and finishing with a school-record 10,064 passing yards. Stewart also recorded 73 career touchdowns in his 41 games played for the Chargers.

At just 24 years old, he’s not that far removed from the young men he’s now charged with overseeing at Sturgis. And in such bizarre times with protocols no one could have imagined just a year ago, Stewart is obviously pleased with how September unfolded.

“These kids are playing extremely hard right now,” Stewart said following the team’s 36-6 win over Allegan this past weekend. “The effort has been outrageously great for us the last two weeks. Finally getting the opportunity to come back after football was taken away from them, the effort was one thing we were hoping we wouldn’t have to worry about. And we didn’t have to. They came out ready to get after it.”

A total of 15 seniors are on the squad this year, but the roster changes weekly as Stewart has given junior varsity players an opportunity to play their way into Friday night spots with the new five-quarter rule instituted by the Michigan High School Athletic Association. Still, it’s the veteran group that mostly has fueled Sturgis so far.

“We have a great senior class here that’s leading the way for the rest of the guys, saying this is how things are going to be done now,” Stewart said. “That senior class really wants to go out on top and they really set the tone the first two weeks.”

Captains Rylee Cain (tight end/linebacker) and Brady Webb (quarterback, linebacker) were selected by their peers, and their production on the field has been solid. Webb threw for 81 yards and two touchdowns in the opener against the Wildcats. Defensively, Webb has logged 11.5 tackles (four for loss), and Cain has 13 tackles (four for loss) and an interception through the first two weeks, which included limited time on the field as the Trojans downed Allegan 36-6. Webb’s 28-yard hookup with Xander Cosby was a game-winner with 43 seconds remaining against Three Rivers.

Stewart also pointed out the crucial play of senior Julian Alldridge, a right guard who will begin lining up at right tackle, and Jaden Bodi, who prepared in camp to play receiver and linebacker but was moved to right guard and defensive end.

“Alldridge has done a phenomenal job so far with helping out,” Stewart said. “From three weeks ago to now, (Bodi) is in two new positions with no questions asked. He just wants to do whatever he can to help the football team.”

Following Jimmy Lamb’s resignation from the head coaching position last year to focus on his new duties in an administrative role in the district, Sturgis athletics director Mark Adams believed Stewart, despite being green behind the ears, had enough experience on the field and the leadership skills to take over.

“That’s something you really need if you’re going to be a good coach,” Adams said. “When my son was growing up, Chance had his own football league at his house and teams from around (St. Joseph County) would come to it. He’s just that kind of guy. He’s organized, he’s imaginative, and talking to him in his interview about his X’s and O’s, I learned a lot of football from him then. He’s young and energetic and has a lot of great ideas, not just for football, but for the community and other things.”

Stewart always hoped to get an opportunity like this, he just didn’t expect it to come so quickly.

“It was special (playing quarterback here),” he said. “It’s special because my dad got to do it back in the 80s. Playing out here, wearing the Sturgis jersey has been really special to us.

Bigger than that, I think was just what the program was able to do for me to help me grow from just a 14-year-old scrawny kid into the person I am now. It’s because of those relationships I created out here. I was lucky enough to play for two coaches that really cared about their players in Coach (Bill) Keim and Coach Lamb — two guys to this day I still look up to. Now I get to give back in that same role that those guys were able to help me.”

Wes Morgan has reported for the Kalamazoo Gazette, ESPN and ESPNChicago.com, 247Sports and Blue & Gold Illustrated over the last 12 years and is the publisher of JoeInsider.com. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) A Sturgis ball carrier follows his blocks in Allegan territory during Friday’s win. (Middle) Chance Stewart has returned home to coach the high school program for which he starred at quarterback less than a decade ago. (Top photo by Scott Rains; middle by Wes Morgan.)

Nightingale Embarking on 1st Season as College Football Head Coach

By Scott Hassinger
Special for MHSAA.com

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

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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.)