D-Coach Stratton, QB Son Leaving Family Mark on Whitehall's Undefeated Run

By Tom Kendra
Special for MHSAA.com

November 2, 2022

Keith Stratton may be an assistant coach, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he has the best vantage point of his son Kyle, Whitehall’s standout junior quarterback.

“I actually miss most of his plays,” explained Keith Stratton, who is in his 10th year as the Vikings’ defensive coordinator.

“I usually have my back to the field, talking to my (defensive) guys. I know he did something good from the roar of the crowd or the PA announcer.”

Kyle Stratton – whose trademark, flowing blonde locks seem to atone for his dad’s bald look – has done plenty of good this fall, leading his team to a West Michigan Conference Lakes title, a No. 2 ranking in Division 4 and a 10-0 record. The Vikings’ closest game since Labor Day was a 42-12 win over Big Rapids in last week’s playoff opener.

Whitehall will face a stiffer challenge in Friday’s Division 4 District title game against Fruitport (8-2), winner of six in a row and tri-champions of the Ottawa-Kent Conference Blue.

“It’s been a great season, but we still have a lot of unfinished business,” said Kyle, 17, who also plays basketball and baseball. “We’re motivated to bring new things to Whitehall which we haven’t had before.”

Whitehall’s longest postseason runs came in 2003 and 2014, both ending in Regional Finals. The goal this year is to sail into uncharted waters – i.e., the Semifinals and then the Finals at Ford Field, for the first time in school history.

Stratton (5-foot-8, 170 pounds) gives the Vikings a great shot with his ability to run and pass out of the veer offense. He has been a great runner since earning the starting QB job as a sophomore, and is the team’s leading rusher with 99 carries for 802 yards and 14 TDs. But his emergence as a highly-accurate passer has elevated Whitehall’s offense to a new level, as he’s completed 72-of-112 passes (64 percent) for 1,362 yards, with 24 TDs and six interceptions.

Stratton uses all of his weapons through the air, including wideouts Trannon Aylor and Camden Thompson and slotbacks Nate Bolley, Malcolm Earvin and Ca’Mar Ready.

“Kyle has worked so hard and essentially doubled his statistics from a year ago,” said 10th-year Whitehall coach Tony Sigmon, a former standout linebacker at DeWitt and Alma College. “He always has the ability to take off and run, but he now has the patience to scramble and still be looking downfield for his receivers.”

Keith Stratton, left, and Kyle man the sidelines during Kyle’s younger years supporting the program. Whitehall’s offense, directed by Kyle Stratton and averaging 51 points per game, has received plenty of accolades this fall. But the Vikings’ stingy defense, under the tutelage of Keith Stratton, might be the key to a postseason run.

Keith Stratton, known for his backwards baseball cap and hands-on-his-knees stance before each play, directs an ultra-aggressive unit which has allowed a total of 40 points over the past two months.

“I don’t wear a headset; it clouds my brain,” Keith said with a laugh.

His blue-collar mentality is instilled in his defense, which is led by senior inside linebackers Graycen Shepherd and Jackson Cook.

“People ask me what it’s like to coach my son, but really, I look at all of these kids like my sons,” said Stratton, who is married to Jodi, and the couple has two older sons, Caleb and Andrew. “They are all thinkers. They come up to me and ask questions. They have exceeded my expectations.”

Stratton, a 1990 graduate of Muskegon Catholic Central, walked-on to the football team at Grand Valley State and was one of eight walk-ons out of 50 to earn a spot on the roster, playing backup fullback and on the scout team.

He majored in criminal justice and went on to work for the City of Muskegon Police Department for 25 years, retiring last year. Early in his career as a cop, he coached eight years of junior varsity football at Muskegon Catholic, then started coaching at Whitehall in 2010. When Sigmon took the head coaching job in 2013, one of the first things he did was name Stratton his defensive coordinator.

“We had been coaching defense together (under previous coach Cliff Sandee), and when we would compare notes before practice, it was like looking in a mirror,” said Sigmon, who is also aided by offensive coordinator CJ VanWieren. “So I was very comfortable putting Keith in charge of the defense. We’ve been at it for 10 years now, and he’s done a great job of growing and progressing as a coach.”

Stratton’s defense will be put to the test against a Fruitport offense which features a big offensive line and the senior twin duo of running back Paschal Jolman and quarterback Collin Jolman.

Paschal already has eclipsed 2,000 rushing yards through 10 games, with 146 carries for 2,028 yards (13.8 per carry) and 25 TDs. Collin has completed 65-of-111 passes for 1,284 yards and 14 TDS, while also scrambling 96 times for 825 yards and 17 TDs.

“Fruitport is balanced and tricky and fast and big,” said Keith Stratton, who grew up in Fruitport. “They break a ton of big plays. We need to limit those big plays and make them work for everything.”

Fruitport turned some heads and gained major respect back on Oct. 7, when it upset then-undefeated and Division 6 top-ranked Grand Rapids West Catholic, 28-20. Since that thrilling signature win, the Trojans have been riding high, scoring an average of 56 points over the past three weeks.

The only time Keith Stratton ever puts on a headset is when his son is on the field directing the Vikings’ offense. While he said it would be nice to watch his son live, his time is better used talking to the other coaches in the booth to make defensive adjustments.

Kyle, meanwhile, said he is motivated by his dad and wants to follow in his footsteps as a college football player and then taking up a career in law enforcement.

“I respect him a lot,” said Kyle. “He’s told me a lot of stories about his time as a cop – going out at 2 a.m. and risking his life. That motivates me more than he even knows.

“If he can do that, I can go out there every Friday night and give every ounce of what I have for my town, and my team, and my friends.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS (Top) Whitehall quarterback Kyle Stratton embraces his father Keith after a game this season. (Middle) Keith Stratton, left, and Kyle man the sidelines during Kyle’s younger years supporting the program. (Photos courtesy of Jodi Stratton.)

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

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.)