Low-Scoring Rematch Goes to Clarkston

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

November 25, 2017

DETROIT – The final score of the Clarkston-West Bloomfield Division 1 Final might cause many football purists to cringe and scoff in disbelief.

But Clarkston coach Kurt Richardson offered no apologies.

Richardson and his staff should be applauded for the job they did this season. Clarkston may not have been loaded with star power this season, but won its third Michigan High School Athletic Association title by defeating West Bloomfield, 3-2, in the Division 1 final on Saturday at Ford Field.

Clarkston (12-2) also won titles in 2013 and 2014. This was West Bloomfield’s first Finals appearance; the Lakers opened this season 0-2 but rebounded to finish 11-3.

The teams combined for the second-lowest points total in Finals history. In 1987, Ann Arbor Pioneer defeated Detroit Catholic Central, 3-0, in the Class A Final.

The teams also tied a Finals record for the most punts (14), and Clarkston tied the record for most punts (8) by one team.

Clarkston (12-2) finished third in the Oakland Activities Association Red this fall behind West Bloomfield and Rochester Adams, which tied for the division title. West Bloomfield soundly defeated Clarkston, 37-16, in the fourth game of the season, and the Lakers were a sensible pick to win again.

“That’s what these kids have been about all season,” Richardson said. “(They) find a way to win.

“We always talk about turning a negative into a positive. When we got beat by Adams (21-14 on Oct. 6), we changed our run game. When we were (5-2, after Week 8), I reamed the coaches. I thought we were doing a shoddy job. We changed our run game. We became a more power running team.”

Clarkston was never a team that wowed with statistics this season. The Wolves relied on their running game, a strong defense and a good kicking game.

Against West Bloomfield – a team with no fewer than 10 players who have either committed to or received a scholarship offer from a Division I college program – Richardson wanted to shorten the game and win the turnover battle.

In its first game against West Bloomfield, Clarkston committed four turnovers. On Saturday, the Wolves had a 3-0 edge.

“We knew they were going to blitz more,” West Bloomfield coach Ron Bellamy said. “Defensively, they we’re going to grind it. We had too many penalties (11 for 105 yards). Clarkston was going to shorten the game. Our special teams weren’t special today.”

The first half, and much of the second, was filled with mishaps.

Clarkston, on its second possession, gave up a safety when a fourth-down snap flew over the punter’s head and over the end line.

The Lakers failed to convert a first down on the ensuing possession and their punt went 19 yards, giving Clarkston the ball on West Bloomfield’s 33.

The Wolves did nothing with that gift and lost 10 yards in three plays, and when they punted it went just three yards.

West Bloomfield pieced together the best drive of the half as the Lakers gained three first downs and had a 1st-and-goal at the 5-yard line. But on the next play, Zach Scott grabbed an interception in the end zone.

The longest play of the half was a 35-yard pass from West Bloomfield quarterback Bryce Veasley to A.J. Abbott that gave the Lakers a first down at its 47. On the next play, Cody Hughes recovered a fumble for Clarkston.

Finally, with time running out in the first half, Wolves quarterback Nathan Uballe completed a 15-yard pass to Conner Heaton, and 13 yards was tacked onto that gain as West Bloomfield was called for roughing the passer. With six seconds left, Clarkston opted for a field goal try and Roemer converted from 30 yards out to give the Wolves a 3-2 halftime lead.

That was it for the scoring. Clarkston did its best to work the clock in the second half with its run game, and not make the big mistake.

Clarkston gained 117 yards, 84 on the ground. Its main ball carrier was junior Jacob Billette, who was in the lineup because Clarkston’s best running back, senior Josh Cantu, suffered a knee injury in the Semifinal and was unavailable. Billette rushed for 69 yards on 14 carries.

“We needed someone to run up the middle,” Richardson said. “Billette is a wrestler. He’s a tough kid. He was the answer.”

West Bloomfield had none for Clarkston’s defense. Veasley came in with nearly 3,300 yards and 24 touchdowns passing. On Saturday, he was 15 of 32 for 214 yards and two interceptions, and he was sacked twice.

“We didn’t make enough plays that needed to be made,” Veasley said. “Every time we made a big play, we had a penalty.”

Clarkston blanketed West Bloomfield’s receivers; all are expected to play at a major university. Michael Fluegel, who doubles as a running back and defensive back for Clarkston, said it was a challenge to go against such a talented group.

“All their receivers are really good,” he said. “You just have to make plays. You have to stay with them.”

For Richardson, this was the unlikeliest of titles. His other title teams had some of the state’s top players, like quarterback D.J. Zezula (Wayne State), who threw two touchdown passes in the 2013 Final and passed for one touchdown and ran for another in the 2014 championship game.

“This is very special,” Richardson said. “This team doesn’t have 5-star kids. We don’t have 4-star kids. We’re unselfish. The kids played with a chip on their shoulder. Nobody picked us to win today.”

Click for the full box score.

The MHSAA Playoffs are sponsored by the Michigan Army National Guard.

PHOTOS: (Top) Clarkston senior Michael Fluegel (30) wraps up West Bloomfield’s Collin Heard during the Division 1 Final. (Middle) Lakers receiver AJ Abbott stretches for a grab over a defender.

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.)