Fueled by Year's Worth of Motivation, Lenawee Christian Caps Perfect Run

By Jason Juno
Special for MHSAA.com

November 18, 2023

MARQUETTE --- Adrian Lenawee Christian won MHSAA Finals titles in its first two seasons of 8-player football.

But last year the Cougars didn’t, falling to eventual Division 1 champion Martin in a Regional Final.

“I’m not joking when I say the Monday after we got beat by Martin, they were all in the weight room,” Lenawee Christian coach Bill Wilharms said.

Since then, they’ve been doing early Saturday morning workouts, they’ve gone to powerlifting meets with him, anything to get better, anything to get back to where they want to be – lifting the championship trophy.

The Cougars did that Saturday afternoon after they defeated Marion 36-18 in the Division 2 Final at the Superior Dome in Marquette.

“That’s why we’ve been doing it,” said senior quarterback Sam Lutz, who was 20 of 23 for 350 yards through the air while accounting for all five touchdowns (two rushing, three passing). “It’s the kind of legacy we’ve been trying to make. You put in the work, you get the results.”

They certainly get the results. The Cougars went undefeated like they did in their first two championship runs, and this 18-point win was their closest game of the season. 

The Cougars’ Jesse Miller (2) forces Marion’s Collin McCrimmon out of bounds. Lutz and the rest of the seniors had one last chance to win a title they could call their own. He said that early exit last fall was the motivation to get here, and this win proved to be a pretty good feeling.

“I played a little bit as a sophomore, but it’s certainly different to be one of the main leaders of this team and it feels really great,” Lutz said. 

“Martin was the better team last year; they took it to us in that Regional,” Wilharms said. “This group of seniors, they wanted one of their own, they wanted their own legacy.”

He said it was awesome to see their hard work pay off.

“What high school kid wants to get up at 6 o’clock on Saturday morning?” Wilharms said. “They come in, they believe in it. It’s nice. And we have fun. The coaches lift and stuff, so it’s just a blast. And then we walk away sore and they laugh at us, and that’s a good thing, too.”

Marion had a long road to Marquette as well. 

While their five-hour drive was actually about two hours shorter than Lenawee Christian’s, the Eagles had been trying for several years to get here. 

They finally got to the Superior Dome after always running into juggernaut Powers North Central. The Jets won the three previous Division 2 titles after defeating Marion in a Semifinal every time. 

“It was the final step. We finally made it here,” Marion coach Chad Grundy said. “We came up a little bit short, but they’re a real good team and we just made a couple mistakes. They’re too good for us to make those mistakes.”

The game started out in Marion’s favor. 

Senior Gavin Prielipp returned the opening kickoff 76 yards for a 6-0 lead just nine seconds in.

“Most people don’t kick to us,” Grundy said. “He ran one back last week, too. It’s been a great season, and we’re just proud of our kids.”

Wilharms expected a good effort from Marion, and saw it right away.

“We knew they were a heck of a football team – you don't get to 12-0 and the state championship (otherwise), so we knew there were gonna be some bumps and stuff along the way,” he said. “Unfortunately, I didn’t think it was going to be that early.”

Lenawee Christian scored 36 straight points after that.

The Cougars led just 1 minute, 41 seconds later when Lutz found senior tight end Easton Boggs for a 15-yard touchdown. The Eli Brainard extra point made it 7-6.

Lutz finds a receiver as Marion’s James Williams applies pressure. Lutz ran for touchdowns of seven and one yard as Lenawee Christian expanded its lead to 20-6 early in the second quarter. He found Boggs again for a 12-yard TD midway through the second quarter, and a 42-yard field goal by Max Stamats with 20 seconds left in the half made it 29-6.

Lutz hit Boggs for the third and final time with six seconds left in the third quarter. The Brainard extra point made it 36-6. In all, Boggs caught nine passes for 210 yards. 

“Easton’s been a force for us through seventh and eighth grade, and Sammy came as a ninth grader,” Wilharms said. “I hope (Lutz) is in the consideration for the 8-player Player of the Year, because I think he’s definitely deserving of it.”

Marion scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, a 30-yard pass from sophomore quarterback Collin McCrimmon to junior James Williams and a three-yard run by junior Cole Meyer.

Lenawee Christian outgained Marion 405-274 and was just the second team to score more than 14 points against the Eagles this year.

“Just the speed,” Grundy said of what makes the Cougars so tough. “They’ve got so much speed everywhere. They’re very well-coached. We struggled with that when they spread it out, trying to defend the quarterback and defend all their receivers.”

It was six years ago when Wilharms bought into the type of workouts that promoted the kind of speed that keeps his team coming to the Upper Peninsula.

On the field, the Cougars enjoy playing offense, which is easy to understand with the way they can score. But Wilharms thought the defense played even better Saturday, suffocating a Marion offense that came in averaging 55 points per game.

“They just were awesome,” he said.

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Lenawee Christian’s Easton Boggs (10) and Sam Lutz celebrate a touchdown Saturday at the Superior Dome. (Middle) The Cougars’ Jesse Miller (2) forces Marion’s Collin McCrimmon out of bounds. (Below) Lutz finds a receiver as Marion’s James Williams applies pressure. (Click for more photos by Cara Kamps.)

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.)