Kalkaska Climbs Under 'Famed' Alum

September 28, 2016

By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half

KALKASKA – It was a whirlwind weekend for Jeremy Wilkinson.

The Kalkaska football coach led his unbeaten Blazers to a 35-0 victory over Cheboygan last Thursday. Then, 24 hours later, Wilkinson was inducted into the Northern Michigan University Sports Hall of Fame as part of the school’s Homecoming festivities.

“It’s a great honor,” the Kalkaska High School graduate said. “I remember 22 years ago looking at all the Hall of Fame plaques (in the Superior Dome) and thinking how cool it would be to be on that wall, too.”

Wilkinson, a wide receiver at Northern Michigan, still holds the career records for receiving yards (3,367) and touchdowns (35).

“This is a small town,” Kalkaska senior quarterback Hunter Suydam said. “Not too many (college) players come out of here, (certainly) not Hall of Famers. It’s pretty special.

“But he doesn’t really talk about it. It’s mainly, ‘Yeah, I played college football. Now, let’s get back to work.’”

That was Wilkinson’s mindset Monday as the Blazers began preparations for a big road task Friday at Boyne City.

With its 5-0 record, Kalkaska’s best start since the 1981 team went 9-0, the team’s generated quite a buzz in the community. But a difficult second half schedule includes games with Boyne City (3-2), Traverse City St. Francis (5-0) and Grayling (3-2).

It’s a stretch that promises to define the Blazers’ season.

“To be 5-0 is great, but our goal is the playoffs and we’ve got a tough schedule ahead of us,” Suydam said. “We need to focus on that. It doesn’t matter if you’re 5-0, if you can’t finish it off.”

Wilkinson has turned the program around since taking over in 2009. The Blazers are in the midst of a fourth winning season in five years – and a possible third playoff appearance during that span. One more win assures that.

“We know it takes one more win to make it into the playoffs,” Wilkinson said, ‘but we also know it’s not going to be easy. The next four weeks will be tough. We have quality opponents. We definitely have to clean up some mistakes we’ve been making the last couple weeks.”

Wilkinson is not surprised by the 5-0 start, which includes a 21-18 win over Leroy Pine River, a 4-1 squad that is ranked No. 9 in this week’s Associated Press Division 6 rankings. After all, the Blazers finished 5-4 a year ago and returned several players with at least three years of varsity experience.

One key returner was Suydam, who has completed 36 of 69 passes for 636 yards and 10 touchdowns in four games (the Blazers won one game by forfeit). Two weeks ago, he threw for 292 yards and five touchdowns in a 40-21 triumph over Elk Rapids. He was 7 of 11 for 103 yards and two more scores against Cheboygan.

“Over the past few years we haven’t thrown the ball a ton,” Wilkinson said, “but this year we’ve opened it up a little more because of the speed and athleticism of our skills guys and the size in our line. It’s nice to be able to throw because it takes defenses out of their comfort zone. Now they’ve got to drop back and try to cover instead of loading seven to eight players in the box. “

Suydam, now in his second year at quarterback, is still learning the position as far as reads, Wilkinson said.

“But he’s starting to put it together,” the coach added.

Wilkinson is quick to credit Suydam’s receivers as well as a line that includes tackles Luke Sexton and Seth Riddle, guards Jake Disbrow and Brad Berger and center Ed Davidson. Nolan Mitchell is the leading receiver with 15 catches for 265 yards and four scores. Hayden Zimmerman has added 10 receptions for 301 yards and three touchdowns while tight end Jake Kies has contributed five receptions for 51 yards and two touchdowns.

“Our line has played well and our receivers are getting open,” Wilkinson said. “Once the ball is in their hands, they’re making plays. The last two weeks we’ve had plays where we’ve caught the ball within five to eight yards of the line of scrimmage and taken it 60, 70, 80 yards for touchdowns.’

Mitchell’s the leading rusher with 258 yards and three scores.

Defensively, the Blazers are paced by linebacker Gavin Peterson, who has a team-high 32 tackles. Mitchell and Disbrow are next with 23 and 21 stops, respectively. Kies, a defensive end, has four sacks.

“Our defense has been playing great and that’s because they’re playing aggressively,” Wilkinson said. “They’re flying around. They want to hit.”

 The Blazers’ roster features 18 seniors.

“Fifteen were on varsity as sophomores,” Suydam said. “Yes, we were 2-7 (two years ago), but that year of experience helped us.”

One of the seniors, receiver-linebacker Jacob Shier, broke his fibula early in the opening game. Shier, who has been on the varsity since his freshman season, still attends practice regularly to be around his teammates.

“I want to be here for the guys,” he said. “This class has been working together since third grade and it’s clicking right now. There’s a lot of talent on this team, more so than we’ve had in a long time. It’s looking good. Everybody’s buying in.”

The experience bleeds down into the junior class. Four juniors are in their third year on varsity.

“What we’re seeing on the football field is a credit to the program as a whole,” athletic director Justin Thorington said. “It starts at the top with the coaches creating a program that our student-athletes are really engaged and interested in, and working hard at.

“Plus, we have a giant senior class, which is always good.”

There are 29 players on varsity, 25 on JV.

“Those are good numbers for a school our size,” Thorington said. “But our participation numbers in general are pretty big. This year we added a JV soccer team, which, as far as I know, is the first time that’s happened here.”

Kalkaska coaches also participated this summer in a training program through Michigan State called Spartan Performance. The program, according to the school’s website, is designed to enhance athletic development and sports performance through a multidisciplinary approach that includes physical training, recovery, nutrition, mental skills and athletic health.

Michigan State conducted a two-day in-service with the coaching staff, then came back for a follow-up.

“It’s collegiate-level training based on research,” Thorington said. “It’s more than just strength training, it’s speed and agility, nutrition, sports psychology. They did training with our female sports coaches on ACL strength and tear prevention. We’re hitting all the facets.

“Our football staff really spearheaded it and ran with it. We only had a couple weeks to implement it, but this offseason we’ll have the entire year to do it. We’re always thinking of ways to get a competitive advantage.”

That said, Thorington added that wins and losses are not the only way to gauge success.

“Our slogan for this year (in the athletic department) is ‘Embrace the Process,’” he said. “We’re not going to concentrate on the results, the wins and losses. That’s not why we’re here. Instead of worrying about championships, we’re going to worry about developing champions.”

One can lead to the other, though, and that’s what the Blazers are hoping.

And as Thorington alluded, it all starts at the top with Wilkinson, who is all about team.

That was evident over the weekend when he first saw his Hall of Fame plaque that listed his individual accomplishments.

“It took a lot of people to make it happen – teammates, coaches, family, friends,” he said. “I didn’t do all the work myself. It’s (induction) an individual honor, but it doesn’t take into account that I had the MIFC Player of the Year at quarterback (Matt Hoard) in 1996. We also had the Defensive Player of the Year (Jovan Dewitt). A lot of people played a huge role in this.”

Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Kalkaska junior Nolan Mitchell (5) looks for a hole against Elk Rapids this season, with Luke Sexton blocking. (Middle) Kalkaska football coach Jeremy Wilkinson. (Below) Senior quarterback Hunter Suydam rolls left looking for a receiver against Leroy Pine River. (Photos by Greg Fast.)

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.)