Inside Selection Sunday: Mapping the Playoffs

December 13, 2011

Sitting on the other side of this process for a number of years, I can admit to occasionally scratching my cynical head over some of the matchups that have come out of Selection Sunday.

How could teams so far from each other play in the same district? Why would two schools in the same town play in different regionals? Are they picking out of a hat at 1661 Ramblewood Drive?

Now, I have answers.

Sunday morning, we filed into headquarters for what might be the most important non-game day on the MHSAA calendar. “We” were made up of half of the MHSAA staff, plus a representative from the Michigan High School Football Coaches Association.

Here’s some of what I learned from being a part of the process:

? First, a brief history lesson. In early years (or until the middle of the last decade), 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. No longer. Using a variety of spreadsheets and mapping software, we’ve gone digital. Staff is split into two teams, each considering four divisions (and the 8-player map) before we reconvene and look at all nine divisions together.

? We are presented digital maps of the state covered in dots. That’s about it. The rule of the day, simply, is “geography rules.” Which teams are represented by the dots is not considered, much less discussed, until lines are drawn. While considering my group’s first map, I began to bring up teams – and immediately was shot down (with good reason). Teams, matchups, rivalries, previous playoff pairings, etc. DO NOT come into play. We draw boxes in what we figure are the most logical ways of making districts and regions work.

? Travel distance and ease DO come into play. This especially is true when considering which districts will include teams from the Upper Peninsula. An example: Marquette is closer to the schools we placed in its district – Fenton, Bay City Western and Okemos – than some other options because those schools are closer to I-75. Schools further north on the map but farther from a main highway would’ve created longer trips.

? Sometimes, maps get ugly. And sometimes, it was a matter of choosing the least ugly situation. Of course, a Division 4 District of Lansing Sexton, Dearborn Heights Robichaud, Battle Creek Pennfield and Vicksburg isn’t ideal. But with no other Division 4 schools within 35 miles of Lansing, we were put in a tough spot. Add in that there were 13 teams in the Detroit area, leaving one as the odd team out of three districts based there. Something had to give, and drawing things up as we did caused the fewest messes.

? Considering how to set up the entire state is different than figuring out what teams make the most sense for just one school or area. And shifting just one dot on a map can change things for all 32.

? Back to “geography rules.” The Division 8 district including Saugatuck, Muskegon Catholic, Mendon and St. Joseph Lake Michigan Catholic might be the most competitive, on paper, in the state. Saugatuck is the reigning MHSAA runner-up in the division, and Muskegon Catholic and Mendon were ranked Nos. 1 and 2, respectively, in the most recent Association Press poll. Seeing that after we’d drawn the line caused a collective “ouch.” But again, the line was drawn based on dots on a map.

I thought back on some of the matchups I’d questioned in the past, and came back to what I’d ask people now: How would you do things differently?

I imagine there would be some creative answers, but I also would guess we considered those scenarios too.

And remember, determining the playoff schedule is just one step in many. Eight state champions must survive it, regardless of which opponents they face along the way.

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.)