MCC Follows 'Big #77' in 3-Peat Attempt

November 4, 2015

By Tom Kendra
Special for Second Half

Jacob Holt will be in the middle of the action, guaranteed, when two great football traditions collide Saturday afternoon in Beal City.

Holt is a four-year starter up front for Muskegon Catholic Central, which ventures toward the middle of the mitten to Beal City in its quest for a third consecutive MHSAA Division 8 championship.

“We know we have to play our best or it will be our last game,” said Holt (6-foot, 245), a senior guard and defensive end for the Crusaders, who were ranked No. 1 in Division 8 in the final Associated Press state poll. “This is a completely different team than the past two years, but our motivation is to uphold the MCC tradition.”

Holt brings a wealth of size, talent and, perhaps most importantly, experience into Saturday’s showdown. He has started nearly 48 games for MCC over the past four years – leading his team to the Semifinals in 2012, starting all 14 games each of the next two years for back-to-back championship teams, and all nine games this year for the 7-2 Crusaders.

Holt is a force on an offensive line which is very good, but not quite the wrecking machine of a year ago.

MCC lost three players off last year’s offensive line who earned some form of all-state recognition – Jaeden MacPherson (now at Ferris State), Michael Caughey (Benedictine in Atchison, Kan.) and Lamar Jordan (St. Francis in Joliet, Ill.).

The new line showed its youth in this season’s opening game at perennial Division 5 powerhouse Muskegon Oakridge. The Eagles rolled to a 31-0 halftime lead and, eventually, a 45-26 victory, snapping MCC’s 26-game winning streak.

Since that game, the Crusaders’ line has come of age behind Holt, who will likely go down as one of the best pulling guards to ever play for veteran MCC line coach and defensive coordinator Mike Ribecky.

“Jacob is just really coordinated and skilled for his size,” said third-year MCC coach Steve Czerwon, whose team has won seven of its last eight games, with its only loss during that stretch coming Week 8 at Detroit Country Day, the top-ranked team in Division 4. “We try to take advantage of that in different ways. We pull him quite a bit and he has played about 20 snaps this season at fullback.”

In his normal position at guard, Holt anchors the strong right side of the Crusaders’ line, which also includes monstrous junior tackle Brock Johnson (6-1, 280) and senior tight end Nate Jones, who made his 50th consecutive varsity start in last week’s 49-7 win over visiting Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart.

Also missing off those back-to-back championship winners is quarterback Nick Holt, Jacob’s older brother and the unquestioned leader of those powerhouse teams. The Holts also made up the battery of MCC’s MHSAA championship baseball team this spring, with Nick on the pitcher’s mound and Jacob at catcher.

“It’s been weird not having him around this fall,” said Jacob of his older brother, who is now a freshman at Hope College, where he is a pitcher on the baseball team. “I miss riding home with him after every game and every practice and just going over everything. We still text all the time, but it’s not the same.”

Nick Holt had to make a difficult choice between playing baseball or football in college, and Jacob will soon face the same agonizing decision. Among the schools pursuing him in football are Saginaw Valley State, Wayne State, Northwood, Mount Union (Ohio) and Hope, while he is actively being recruited in baseball by Kalamazoo College, Aquinas College and Hope.

Stepping into Nick Holt’s big shoes at the quarterback spot is senior Christian Martinez, who has assumed a more traditional ball distribution role – getting the ball to junior running backs Logan Helton and LaTommy Scott, as well as his favorite aerial target in junior Walker Christoffersen.

Holt gives much of the credit for his success to his parents, Mike and Cathi Holt, who raised their two sons to be both competitive and humble in everything they do.

“My dad has been my coach ever since I was a little kid,” said Jacob, 17, who has a 3.88 GPA and scored a 27 on his ACT. “He taught me how to be a man. The big thing with him was, win or lose, we weren’t going to be poor sports.”

Mike Holt, now in his 16th year as a science teacher at MCC, has influenced more than just his two sons for the Crusaders’ football program. Holt is the Crusaders’ middle school head football coach and, along with former MCC great and Northern Illinois Hall of Famer Frank Lewandoski, has played a big part in the development of the program’s players for the past six years.

This fall, the school district took it a step further with the formation of the Muskegon Catholic Central Youth Football Club, which was organized by current MCC School Board President Andy Riegler, who quarterbacked the Crusaders to a Class C championship in 1990. Czerwon called the club’s first season “hugely successful.”  

Those kinds of efforts at the lower levels help explain MCC’s continued success, despite steadily declining enrollment over the past 35 years.

“We’re blessed to have quality coaches at the middle school and the youth levels, who really care about the kids,” said Czerwon, who boasts a gaudy 33-4 record in his three years as head coach.

MCC first broke through in the football playoffs as a Class B school, winning MHSAA titles in 1980 and 1982. The Crusaders won three Class C championships in the 1990s and have won five titles in either Division 7 or Division 8 during the first 15 seasons the 2000s.

With a current enrollment of 177 students, MCC is a Class D school in size, but the standards and expectations for the football program have remained as high as ever.

Many of those young kids aspire to someday be like Jacob Holt, big No. 77, who sets a great example for them both on and off the field.

Holt will need to be at his best against a Beal City program that knows all about physical football and playing in November.

While the Crusaders boast 10 MHSAA titles in the playoff era, Beal City has the edge over MCC and every other team in the state with 33 playoff appearances. Farmington Hills Harrison is second with 32, followed by Crystal Falls Forest Park and Fowler with 31. Muskegon Catholic is eighth with 27 playoff appearances.

Beal City (9-1), which was ranked sixth in the final AP Division 8 poll with its only loss coming Week 5 against Evart, will seek to avenge a 35-12 loss to MCC in the 2013 Division 8 championship game at Ford Field in Detroit.

While the two schools are known for football success, their biggest rivalry in recent years has been on the baseball diamond. Beal City knocked off MCC in Division 4 Regional Finals in 2013 and 2014, with the Crusaders getting the upper hand this past spring.

On Saturday, the two schools will meet on the gridiron for a Division 8 District championship.

“We’ve gotten to know Beal City really well,” said Holt, an all-Lakes 8 Conference lineman the past two years. “It’s a chance for us to show how far we’ve come this year. We lost 18 seniors last year, so it hasn’t always been smooth, but I think we’re playing our best right now.”

Tom Kendra worked 23 years at The Muskegon Chronicle, including five as assistant sports editor and the final six as sports editor through 2011. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Muskegon, Oceana, Mason, Lake, Oceola, Mecosta and Newaygo counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Jacob Holt recovers a fumble during MCC's dramatic, come-from-behind, 29-26 victory over host Fruitport on Oct. 2. (Middle) Holt shows his athletic ability, leaping high and nearly blocking this punt in a 49-14 victory over visiting Fremont at Kehren Stadium. (Below) Mike Holt, a Muskegon Catholic Central teacher and middle school football coach, is flanked by his sons, junior Jacob (77) and senior Nicholas (3), after MCC defeated Munising last year for its second consecutive MHSAA Division 8 championship. (Photos by Tim Reilly.)

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

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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.)