Many Champs Have Played Waiting Game

January 12, 2021

By Ron Pesch
Special for Second Half

A state football championship is a dream for many. Fans wait for the day that they can beam with pride as their favorite squad or school hoists the title trophy toward the sky. For coaches and kids, it’s a road to memories never to be forgotten.

Many schools still wait for that day. Others pray for a return to such glory.

Today, we look at return trips to the winner’s circle. It’s filled with fascinating facts.

Ten schools have won three or more consecutive gridiron championship since the arrival of the tournament in 1975 (when titles began being awarded annually in four classifications based on enrollment – A, B, C & D). Grand Rapids West Catholic, Farmington Hills Harrison and East Grand Rapids lead the pack with five successive titles. Muskegon Catholic Central, Detroit St. Martin dePorres and Ithaca each had streaks of four in a row, while Jackson Lumen Christi, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s, Detroit Catholic Central and Bloomfield Hills Brother Rice each had three-peats. Michigan has seen 31 instances of back-to-back crowns in 11-player football, accomplished at least once  by 28 schools. To date, Powers North Central is the only squad to repeat since the 8-player playoffs began in 2011.

But what about the span between titles?

Patience is a Virtue

Eighteen schools have seen gaps of 10 or more years between MHSAA football championships. It’s happened twice for both Orchard Lake St. Mary’s and Crystal Falls Forest Park.

St. Mary’s earned its first football title in 1977 under coach Art Paddy. Its second came 17 years later under current head coach George Porritt. The Eaglets have earned eight titles total and have appeared in 14 championship games. Seven of those titles have come under Porritt’s guidance. They went back-to-back in 1999-2000, but then had to wait 11 seasons before winning their fifth title in 2011. In between, they finished as runner-up on five occasions.

Forest Park has appeared in 13 MHSAA Football Finals over the years, including six of the first 10 Class D title games between 1975 and 1984. Led by Upper Peninsula coaching legend Richard Mettlach, the Trojans were winners of the first two Class D titles, when only 16 teams qualified for the postseason. A total of 31 seasons would pass before Forest Park would win its third football championship.  In between, multiple alterations were made to the postseason.

In 1977, the playoffs expanded to a three-week format that included 32 participating teams. The tournament grew to 64 qualifiers in 1985, then moved from awarding titles in four classes to eight (AA, A, BB, B, CC, C, DD &  D) involving 128 teams, played out over four weeks. In 1999, the postseason was again altered, to a five-week layout including 256 contenders within eight groupings of 32 teams (Division 1 through Division 8), established after the 256 qualifiers were determined.

Bill Santilli, captain and star running back of the Trojans’ 1975 championship squad, took over the program in 1996 and led the Red and Black on seven trips to the Division 8 championship game – the first in 2000, then to six straight appearances in the title game between 2004-2009. Leading 22-14, Santilli’s 2007 team ground the final 6:07 off the game clock to seal their victory over Fulton, ensuring celebration during the Trojans’ eight-hour, 500+ mile trip back to the Upper Peninsula.  

Much changed over the following decade at Forest Park. Santilli retired following the 2013 season. He finished with and impressive 171-45 win-loss mark that included 17 straight years in the MHSAA Playoffs. He went out on a high note, posting a 12-1 mark in 2013.

In 2015, following a trend of continued declining enrollments at U.P. schools, the Crystal Falls Forest Park Board of Education chose to move to 8-player football beginning with the 2016 season.

In 2017, seeing a 20-percent increase in the number of schools that chose this option for their student-athletes, the MHSAA expanded the 8-player tournament to two divisions. That fall, under head coach David Graff, the Trojans returned home with the 8-player Division 2 crown, becoming the second team in Michigan to win titles in both forms of the game

So far, Lawrence, is the only other high school to win championships in both 11-player and 8-player ball. The Tigers won their first football title in 1997 in Class DD. In 2014, 17 years later, they trounced Cedarville, 56-12, to pick up their first championship in 8-player.

The Longest Interval of All

Ishpeming fans have enjoyed seven trips to the MHSAA Finals over the years. The Hematites, nicknamed after the reddish-black iron ore that was long mined in the area, waited 33 years between their 1979 title and their 2012 championship. That’s currently the longest span between football championships in Michigan history.

Boasting a strong ground attack, Ishpeming picked up its first state crown in 1975 in an impressive manner, defeating heavily-favored Hudson in a Class C showdown hosted at Central Michigan University. Coach Mike Mileski’s squad rambled to a 24-8 lead by the end of one quarter, then cruised to a 38-22 victory. Hudson hadn’t lost a contest since the 1968 season, and the Hematites’ triumph halted the Tigers’ national win streak at 72-games

Mileski guided the Hematites to the 1978 Semifinal before departing for Marquette High School to continue his coaching and teaching career. John Croze, an assistant under Mileski, took the reins in 1979 and drove Ishpeming to its second MHSAA title – finishing with a 13-0 victory over Watervliet.

It took 31 years before Ishpeming earned another shot at a crown. The 2010 Division 7 title game was, once again, a showdown between the Hematites and Hudson. This time, Hudson – coached by Chris Luma, the Tigers’ quarterback back in 1975 – won a thriller, 28-26.

A mere two seasons later, Ishpeming was back, this time winning the first of back-to-back titles, both with victories over Detroit Loyola. Those also were the first of four straight visits to the Finals by coach Jeff Olson’s teams. In 2014, the two teams met again, this time with Loyola emerging as victor. Ishpeming won its third title in four seasons in 2015, downing Pewamo-Westphalia, 22-16.

On the coaching side, Rich Hulkow at Marshall waited 13 seasons (1996 & 2009) between championships. Schoolcraft’s Larry Ledlow (1989 & 2001) had a pause of 12 years between celebrations. The aforementioned Porritt at St. Mary’s saw a break of 11 years between title triumphs. Mike Giannone went 10 season between titles at Macomb Dakota (2007) and later Warren De La Salle Collegiate (2017). Even legends Al Fracassa at Brother Rice (1990 & 2000) and George Barcheski (1983 & 1993) at East Grand Rapids had 10-years spans of wonder during their long coaching careers. Pete Kutches won titles in 1980 and 1982 at Muskegon Catholic, then a decade passed before “The Catch” gave his Muskegon Reeths-Puffer squad the 1992 Class A championship.

Don’t Stop Believing

One school with a long streak of waiting remain in the chase during this extended 2020-21 postseason.

Traverse City High School last won a football title in 1988. Coach Jim Ooley’s Trojans finished Class A runner-up in 1975, then rattled off titles in 1978, 1985 and 1988. Named head coach in 1967, he retired following the 1991 season.

In the fall of 1997, the school split into two with the opening of Traverse City West.

Traverse City Central, as the original school is now known, is still chasing its next football championship 32 years later. The Trojans take on reigning Division 2 champion Muskegon Mona Shores in a Semifinal this Saturday.

Ron Pesch has taken an active role in researching the history of MHSAA events since 1985 and began writing for MHSAA Finals programs in 1986, adding additional features and "flashbacks" in 1992. He inherited the title of MHSAA historian from the late Dick Kishpaugh following the 1993-94 school year, and resides in Muskegon. Contact him at [email protected]:void(0);t with ideas for historical articles.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ryan Van Dyke scores one of his two touchdowns in Marshall’s 14-13 win over Kingsford in the 1996 Class BB Final. (Middle) The 1976 Crystal Falls Forest Park team. (Below) The 1979 Ishpeming team. (Photos from MHSAA files; Marshall photo by Gary Shook.)  

Nightingale Embarking on 1st Season as College Football Head Coach

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

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.)