Inside Selection Sunday: Mapnalysis '14

October 26, 2014

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

 
The pictures we drew Sunday morning at the MHSAA office won’t be found hanging on anyone’s walls.
 
But we worked toward something suitable for framing, designing this season’s football playoff brackets while considering the months and years of work put in by our schools and their teams, parents and fans to earn an opportunity to continue their seasons this weekend.
 
The work completed today to draw up the 2014 MHSAA Football Playoffs began long before opening night in August. Our football tournament is like none other sponsored by the MHSAA – it’s the only team tournament in which every team doesn’t qualify – and we began talking about this tournament not long after last season’s champions were decided.
 
Then came April and May and tracking down schedules for 613 MHSAA varsity football teams, plus 45 out-of-state opponents our Michigan schools were set to play including 14 from Ontario and one from Minnesota.
 
The fun part was monitoring the scores and standings for all of these teams over the nine weeks of the regular season, each Friday night a stream of chatter from kickoff into our weekly highlights show on Fox Sports Detroit.
 
And then came Sunday – and navigating the most difficult maps to draw in my four seasons assisting in the process.
 
We often have versions “a” and “b” and on occasion “c” when considering which best accomplishes our goal – to create the correct geographical picture for each of eight 11-player divisions and our 8-player bracket.
 
Sunday morning, we saw a version “e” for the first time I can remember and some shapes that didn’t make much sense without explanation.

Some of those explanations are below – the stories behind how we made some of the toughest decisions. I start with a quick history lesson you can skip if you’re familiar with this annual report or our playoff selection process in general, then move into some of the specifics many will be discussing this week as they begin focusing on their Pre-District opponents. (Click for the full schedule.)

The process

Our past: The MHSAA playoff structure – with 256 teams in eight divisions, and six wins equaling an automatic berth (or five wins for teams playing eight or fewer games) – debuted in 1999. An 8-player tournament was added in 2011, resulting in nine champions total each season.

The first playoffs were conducted in 1975 with four champions. Four more football classes were added in 1990 for a total of eight champions each fall. Through 1998, only 128 teams made the postseason, based on their playoff point averages within regions (four for each class) that were drawn before the beginning of the season. The drawing of Districts and Regions after the end of the regular season did not begin until the most recent playoff expansion.

In early years of the current process, lines were drawn by hand. Dots representing qualifying schools were pasted on maps, one map for each division, and those maps were then covered by plastic sheets. Districts and Regionals literally were drawn with dry-erase markers.

Our present: After a late Saturday night tracking scores, we file in as the sun rises Sunday morning for a final round of gathering results we may still need (which can include making a few early a.m. calls to athletic directors). Re-checking and triple-checking of enrollments, what schools played in co-ops and opted to play as a higher class start a week in advance, and more numbers are crunched Sunday morning as the fields are set.

This season, there were 229 automatic qualifiers by win total – with the final 27 at-large then selected, by playoff-point average, one from each class in order (A, B, C, D) until the field is filled.

Those 256 11-player teams are then split into eight equal divisions based on enrollment, and their locations are marked on digital maps that are projected on wall-size screens and then discussed by nearly half of the MHSAA staff plus a representative from the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association. Only the locations themselves are marked (by yellow dots) – not records, playoff point averages or names of the schools or towns. In fact, mentions of those are strictly prohibited. Records and playoff points are not part of the criteria. Matchups, rivalries, previous playoff pairings, etc. also DO NOT come into play.

The same process is followed for organizing the 8-player bracket, with the difference that the 16 teams are selected purely on playoff-point average.

Geography rules: This long has been rule number one for drawing MHSAA brackets in any sport, and is a repeat as well for those who have read this report the last three Octobers. Travel distance and ease DO come into play. Jumping on a major highway clearly is easier than driving across county-wide back roads, and that’s taken into consideration. Also, remember there’s only one Mackinac Bridge and hence only one way to cross between peninsulas – and boats are not considered a possible form of transportation. When opponents from both peninsulas will be in the same District, distance to the bridge is far more important than as the bird flies.

Tradition doesn’t reign: Every group of 32 dots is a new group – these 32 teams have not been placed in a bracket together before. That said, how maps have been drawn in the past isn’t considered – it’s hard to say a division has been drawn in a certain way traditionally when this set of 32 teams is making up a division for the first time.

Observations and answers: 2014  

Class A ripple: A total of 80 Class A teams qualified for the playoffs in 2013 after three seasons of 79 each. But 89 Class A teams are part of the 2014 field, and that increase in turn shifted a number of smaller schools into different divisions – including some annual favorites. Muskegon, Division 2 runner-up the last two seasons, is in Division 3. Marine City, last season’s Division 4 champion, will play in Division 5. Five-time Division 5 champ Jackson Lumen Christi moved into Division 6, where it could be the toughest obstacle as Ithaca attempts to win that division for the fifth straight season.
 
Stranger on paper: Yes, Division 1’s District 2 stretches from Grandville to Hartland. This isn’t a desirable outcome, but was necessary with this field. Six districts are filled with teams all east of U.S. 23, and a seventh is completely north and west of Grand Rapids. That left the four teams in the middle – Grandville, East Kentwood, Grand Ledge and Hartland.
 
Something similar came down in the 8-player bracket – why would we break up four teams in the Thumb to include three with Big Rapids Crossroads Academy all the way west of U.S. 127? It had to do with creating the appropriate semifinal matchup for whichever team emerges from the Rapid River/Cedarville/Engadine/Bellaire regional; keeping the Thumb teams together might’ve meant Lawrence or Waldron from near the Indiana border going all the way to Rapid River instead of Thumb teams that are still far away but closer to the convenient highways.
 
Line falls through Warren: Division 2 presented a few challenges. There are five districts made up of schools predominantly in the Greater Detroit and Port Huron areas, so one was going to end up potentially matching up farther from home. At first we drew a region across the bottom of the Lower Peninsula that connected teams from the Kalamazoo/Battle Creek area with a district from Ypsilanti and south of Detroit. But rearranging districts to draw a line between Warren DeLaSalle and Warren Counsino, although they’re nearly neighbors, helped make the rest of the map much cleaner – and eliminated that I-94 Regional we didn’t prefer.
 
Deconstructing D3: This was another toughie given the locations of teams involved. Three districts are all east of U.S. 23 and south of Pontiac, and four more are all west and/or north of Greater Lansing. Usually the Lansing area has a large share of Division 3 qualifiers – but not this season. So that left five schools somewhat without a sure home – St. Johns, DeWitt, Mason, Tecumseh and Linden. DeWitt is much closer to Mason and even Tecumseh, with the differences between St. Johns and DeWitt to Linden and St. Johns and DeWitt to Grand Rapids small enough to cancel out in the big picture.
 
Stretching Division 6: In the end, this map looks good – but there was a lot of conversation. The tough part was finding the fairest possible situation for whichever district champ might end up playing Negaunee – Bad Axe in the Thumb, Madison Heights Madison or Warren Michigan Collegiate as possibilities coming out of northern Detroit, or even Fennville near Lake Michigan south of Holland. Proximity to I-75 helped make this decision.

Crisscrossing Division 8: Figuring out this bracket started out easy enough with eight teams in the Upper Peninsula or just south of Mackinac Bridge and with the southwest and southeast Lower Peninsula set. But a group of 10 across the top of the Lower Peninsula – including neighbors Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart, Beal City and Coleman – made this interesting. A rule of thumb is we don’t want a team passing through a different district or regional to reach its opponent – and with three teams so closely bunched, that was a challenge in drawing this one out.  

At the end of the day ... 

What you see is what our committee decided upon after multiple discussions among multiple groups that broke down every sensible possibility we could muster. There are certainly points open to argument – and we likely made those arguments as well.

In the end, we present a group of dots on a map – as stated above, we don’t identify the schools until after the groupings are drawn. Part of the fun is then finding out what first-round matchups we’ve created: Muskegon Mona Shores vs. Caledonia and Detroit Martin Luther King vs. Southfield should be incredible, as well as the Ishpeming/Westwood and Iron Mountain/West Iron County rivalry games in the Upper Peninsula.
 
And no doubt, those who play for and support Burton Atherton, Ypsilanti Community, first-year Lapeer High School, Big Rapids Crossroads and New Haven Merritt Academy are ready to enjoy the playoff ride for the first time.

We’re excited to watch them all – and see which end up in Detroit with us to finish the fall over Thanksgiving weekend. We hope to see you there as well.

PHOTO: The Division 4 map for 11-player football has each region shaded; champion of the white plays green in a semifinal with yellow facing blue in the other. 

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.)