Memphis Tastes Victory, Plays for More

By Paul Costanzo
Special for MHSAA.com

September 12, 2018

Winning was such an unfamiliar feeling for the Memphis varsity football team that when the Yellowjackets picked up a victory in Week 1, coach Pat Connell had to give some of his players a push when it came to enjoying it.

“We call (the victory formation), they take a knee and nobody knows what to do,” Connell said. “The kids on the field are starting to celebrate, and I looked at the kids behind me and said, ‘Hey, this is when you celebrate.’”

Memphis’ 14-12 win against Burton Bentley on Aug. 23 snapped a 26-game losing streak for the Yellowjackets, who hadn’t been victorious since Week 1 of the 2015 season. It was a cathartic moment for the players, coaching staff, school and community – one that won’t soon be forgotten.

“Honestly, I’d say it was the best feeling I’ve ever felt on that field,” senior wingback and defensive tackle Cole Myers said. “My entire time playing football at my school, we hadn’t gotten a win in the last two to three years. It felt like the turning point of our program.”

One win was great, and something Memphis desperately needed. But while everyone involved in the Memphis program knows things are looking up, they also know there is plenty of work still to be done to turn things completely around. That was evident in 44-0 and 42-0 losses to Ubly and Brown City, respectively, in the following weeks.

But it’s work the coaches and players are now willing to put in.

“I enjoyed it; it was nice to have my first Memphis football win,” senior quarterback and safety Cale Shivers said. “I’ve played football my whole life and been on winning teams my whole life, so I know that if we want to win more games, we have to keep working.”

When Connell and his staff took over, Memphis had just finished its first 0-9 season in 2016, which came on the heels of back-to-back 1-8 seasons.

During those struggles, numbers had gotten so low for the Yellowjackets that there were talks of prematurely ending a season -- not to end the losing, but to keep kids safe.

To build the program, Connell first needed players, and to get players, he needed to be recruiting in the hallways. Unfortunately for him, he teaches at Port Huron Northern, a good 30-minute drive from Memphis, as does his assistant Casey Kucsera. Assistant coach Pete Fox teaches at St. Clair, which is closer, but clearly not in the building.

“That first year when we took over in April or May, we were trying to get any kids, but it was a slow process,” Connell said. “We were taking personal days to set up in the school to go meet kids.”

The idea of simply playing a junior varsity schedule was brought up, but Connell said that if there was just one senior who wanted to play, the Yellowjackets would play as a varsity team so that player could have that experience. They wound up with 10, and while it was another 0-9 season, that fall was a building block.

“That first year was just about making it fun,” Connell said. “It isn’t us coming in to yell and scream at you; we want you to come out and enjoy football. It was opening the weight room, and sometimes kids would stumble in, and we were developing that trust. Then the word started getting out.”

When comparing 0-9 seasons, it can be hard to find tangible improvement. But Memphis scored more points (60-39) and allowed fewer (427-538) while playing a similar schedule in 2017.

Most importantly, though, the players were noticing that things were different.

“Kids didn’t really see the progression until other coaches and players from teams were saying, ‘Even though you guys lost, we can tell you really look like a football team now,’’ Shivers said. “And we were hearing from the public that we actually looked good out there.”

Despite not winning a game, Memphis did pick up some momentum.

“When I first got out to Memphis, I would ask kids, ‘Are you interested in playing football?’ and it was, ‘I don’t know, maybe,’” said Connell, who is up to 28 players on his roster. “This offseason, it was, ‘Are you playing,’ and they were like, ‘Yes sir, I’m playing.’ We had like 20 kids who were all in on football. Now, that didn’t mean that they realized they had to be there three days a week in the winter lifting, but they were excited.”

The excitement grew after the opening win against Burton Bentley, a game that was filled with drama. After Memphis took a 14-12 lead on Shivers’ second touchdown pass of the evening and his ensuing 2-point conversion run, it had a chance to ice the game by running out the clock with a few first downs. Before that could happen, however, the lights -- which were set on a timer -- went out in the stadium.

When they came back on about 20 minutes later, Burton Bentley forced a Memphis punt to give itself one more chance.

Fortunately for the Yellowjackets, that drive ended with a turnover, and Memphis was able to run a play out of the victory formation for the first time in three years.

“I wouldn’t even call it remembering how to win,” Myers said. “Because I’ve never been on a winning team for football. It was something new.”

The feeling, Myers said, made him want to win more. And while Weeks 2 and 3 were a return to Earth for the Yellowjackets, those defeats haven’t dampened their spirits or their outlook. Connell knows there is still plenty of work to be done in the weight room and on the field to have his team competing with its Greater Thumb Conference East opponents.

But his players believe in what he and his staff are doing, and they are now starting to believe in themselves.

“It might take a couple more wins before people (in the school) start realizing this is a different program from past years,” Myers said. “(A successful season would be) to put in everything that we possibly can and have more wins than losses at this point. I would say five to six wins would be what I would hope out of this season.”

Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Memphis players huddle up before a game this season. (Middle) The Yellowjackets defense held Burton Bentley to 12 points. (Photos courtesy of the Memphis football program.)

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.)