A Game for Every Fan: Playoffs Week 3

November 12, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

Through the rain, and fog, and in some places up north a few flakes of snow, we see the MHSAA Football Finals finally approaching – even if predicting which teams will be playing is still no easy task.  

Plenty of opponents facing off this weekend have seen each other at this late date before. For a handful of others, this has been a wild first-time ride.

Here’s a look at what might be the most intriguing of this weekend’s 11-player Regional Finals, plus a longer glance at both 8-player Semifinals. All games are tonight unless noted.

Division 1

Detroit Cass Tech (9-2) at Macomb Dakota (9-2)

It’s hard to believe Macomb Dakota hasn’t played in an MHSAA championship game since 2007, but the 2010 and previously-undefeated 2013 teams both saw their seasons end in Regional Finals against Cass Tech. The Technicians, led by standout quarterback Rodney Hall, have lost only to Detroit Martin Luther King this season, twice. They are playing to make a third straight Semifinal – and get a shot at getting back to the championship game for the first time since 2012.

Other Regional Finals: Rockford (8-3) at Grand Ledge (11-0), Detroit Catholic Central (9-2) at Romeo (10-1), Canton (9-2) at Saline (10-0).

Division 2

Muskegon (9-2) at Lowell (10-1)

Muskegon’s path has been such that every week’s game has been one of the state’s most anticipated. After eliminating previously undefeated Traverse City Central and Muskegon Mona Shores in the District, the Big Reds must hit the road again to take on a Lowell team that is only two three-point losses from perfection. Not that this is an unfamiliar position for either program – although they didn’t meet last year, Lowell and Muskegon ran across each other in the playoffs six straight seasons from 2008-13.

Other Regional Finals: Midland Dow (10-1) at Walled Lake Western (11-0), Livonia Franklin (8-3) at Berkley (9-2), Detroit East English (9-2) at Detroit Martin Luther King (11-0), Saturday.

Division 3

Coldwater (11-0) at St. Joseph (10-1)

This trip into uncharted waters keeps getting longer for the Cardinals, who won their first playoff game ever two weeks ago. Although this level of the tournament is new, St. Joseph isn’t a completely unfamiliar opponent – the Bears beat Coldwater on opening night 2013. St. Joseph has downed league champions three of its last four games and is seeking its first Regional title since 2007.

Other Regional Finals: Chelsea (10-1) at Allen Park (10-1), East Grand Rapids (8-3) at Mount Pleasant (9-2), Saturday; St. Johns (8-3) at Orchard Lake St. Mary’s (9-1), Saturday.

Division 4

Flint Powers Catholic (9-2) at Richmond (10-1)

The first game between these schools features two programs looking to get over the Regional hump. Powers has fallen in two Regional Finals in three seasons since winning Division 5 in 2011. Richmond lost in the Regional Final last year after falling in District Finals both of the two seasons prior; the Blue Devils are trying to make their first Semifinal since 2003. After winning its playoff games by a combined eight points, Richmond will have to contend with a Chargers defense that hasn’t given up a point in these playoffs and has six shutouts total in 11 games.

Other Regional Finals: Remus Chippewa Hills (9-2) at Ada Forest Hills Eastern (10-1), Hudsonville Unity Christian (8-3) at Zeeland West (11-0), Milan (9-2) at Detroit Country Day (10-1), Saturday.

Division 5

Grand Rapids West Catholic (9-2) at Menominee (11-0), Saturday

This has become an annual game at some stage of the playoffs. Saturday will mark the sixth straight postseason meeting between these two, including Semifinals last season, 2010 and 2012 and the 2013 Division 5 Final. The Maroons usually can take advantage of opponents not familiar with their single-wing offense, but West Catholic should be plenty familiar; what Menominee can boast this time is its most impressive defense since the back-to-back undefeated seasons of 2006 and 2007.

Other Regional Finals: Lansing Catholic (10-1) at Freeland (11-0), Buchanan (11-0) at Ida (11-0), Algonac (10-1) at River Rouge (10-1).

Division 6

Boyne City (10-1) at Traverse City St. Francis (11-0)

The first battle between these rivals this season wasn’t much of one by the end, with St. from running back Malik Smith, and fumbled three times – which makes it feel like this rematch will be much closer if the Ramblers keep mistakes to a minimum. It’s fair to say St. Francis creates its own opportunities, though; the Gladiators have five shutouts in 11 games.

Other Regional Finals: Laingsburg (8-3) at Ithaca (11-0), Jackson Lumen Christi (8-3) at Clinton (11-0), Constantine (7-4) at Grand Rapids NorthPointe Christian (11-0), Saturday.

Division 7

Sandusky (11-0) at New Lothrop (11-0)

Sandusky is stacking accomplishments like no football team at the school before. The Redskins have more than nine wins for the first time and won a District title for the first time, and now will take on the powerhouse Hornets for the first time. Few teams in Michigan have put together a run over the last six seasons like New Lothrop, which is 65-5 during that span. But the Hornets have been stopped short of the MHSAA championship game all of those seasons, and surely would like a first Finals appearance since 2006 to add to its recent local dominance. 

Other Regional Finals: Cassopolis (9-2) at Pewamo-Westphalia (11-0), Dansville (10-1) at Detroit Loyola (9-2), McBain (8-3) at Ishpeming (10-0).

Division 8

Crystal Falls Forest Park (7-3) at St. Ignace (10-1)

In pursuit of its third Regional title in five seasons – and really, in pursuit of its first MHSAA Final appearance since 1985 – St. Ignace has shown well against the toughest competition of its season. Three of the last four games, all four against playoff teams, have been decided by eight points or fewer, and the Saints came back from a second trip to rival Johannesburg-Lewiston last week with a second win over the Cardinals. Forest Park has no losses left to avenge after winning rematches the last two weeks against the two in-state teams it fell to during the regular season. But the Trojans did fall to St. Ignace in their last meeting, a 2011 Regional Final.

Other Regional Finals: Ottawa Lake Whiteford (9-2) at Climax-Scotts (11-0), Saturday; Muskegon Catholic Central (8-2) at Frankfort (9-2), Saturday; Saginaw Michigan Lutheran Seminary (10-1) at Waterford Our Lady (11-0), Saturday.

8-Player

Cedarville (9-2) at Powers North Central (11-0)

North Central is led by a talented quarterback making the entire state take notice – junior Jason Whitens is up to 41 touchdown passes without an interception to go with his 10 scores on the ground, and junior running back Bobby Kleiman has run for 17 touchdowns and caught 14 of Whitens’ scoring tosses. But Cedarville doesn’t give up too many scores. The Trojans handed Owendale-Gagetown and Posen their only losses of the season the last two weeks, giving up only 48 points total over those two games – a respectable total in the wide-open 8-player format.

Deckerville (10-1) vs. Battle Creek St. Philip (11-0), Saturday at Battle Creek Central

St. Philip got past rival Lawrence one final time last week, but the path to Legacy Field remains blocked by another past champion. Deckerville avenged its lone loss of the season by doubling up Morrice last week and has run over opponents for nearly 3,400 yards, with senior Jared Philpot and juniors Austin Fritch and Brandon Pattullo combining for 2,300 yards and 37 touchdowns on the ground. The Eagles have thrown only 48 times, but St. Philip is much more balanced. The Tigers have nearly the same rushing and passing yardage totals this season – within 77 yards – with senior Brendan Gausselin throwing 35 touchdown passes and senior Brayden Darr running for 23 scores and catching 14 touchdown passes.

PHOTO: Traverse City St. Francis, here against Elk Rapids, is 11-0 for the first time since its undefeated season of 2009. (Photo courtesy of St. Francis athletic department.)

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.)