Much Different Story, Same Final Result as Lenawee Christian Repeats

By Travis Nelson
Special for Second Half

November 20, 2021

MARQUETTE — It was a different stadium, but the same end result Saturday as Adrian Lenawee Christian defeated Suttons Bay for the second consecutive season, this time 31-20, to repeat as 8-player Division 1 champion.

But Saturday’s game at Northern Michigan University’s Superior Dome proved a much tougher test for the Cougars, who needed two fourth-quarter touchdowns to finally take down the Norsemen. 

Lenawee Christian had won last season’s championship game 47-0 at Legacy Center in Brighton.

“What a tremendous game; my hat’s off to Suttons Bay,” Adrian Lenawee Christian coach Bill Wilharms said. “To make it here three straight years in a row, man what an amazing program coach (Garrick) Opie has.

“To all of the fans, it was so cool in this environment. It was so loud. This is what small-town football is all about. I can’t say enough about the venue and just having the opportunity to be here. I appreciate that a great deal.”

The game couldn’t have started better for the Cougars, as on the second play, Ashur Bryja intercepted a Suttons Bay pass and returned it 22 yards for the opening score. Suttons Bay had multiple scoring chances in the first quarter with drives reaching the Lenawee Christian red zone, but the Norsemen turned the ball over on downs. 

The second quarter came with better fortunes for Suttons Bay, with Hugh Periard taking a handoff 90 yards for a score. Shawn Bramer’s two-point conversion run was sniffed out by the Cougars’ defense, and Suttons Bay trailed 7-6 with 6:44 left in the half. Lenawee Christian had a nice drive going inside the Norsemen 10-yard line before a pass was tipped and intercepted at the goal line by August Schaub, and returned it 99 yards for a score. Another Suttons Bay two-point attempt was no good, but the two touchdowns built a 12-7 lead with 4:58 to go in the half.

But Adrian Lenawee Christian didn’t fold because of the momentum changes, and responded with a six play, 65-yard drive capped off with a Bryja 11-yard touchdown run to take the lead back. The Cougars led 14-12 at halftime, and responding to Suttons Bay’s punches went back to being tested throughout the season, Wilharms said.

Lenawee Christian/Suttons Bay football“I think this year, we’ve been tested a couple times,” Wilharms said. “Colon did it to us at their place, we had to weather some storms there as well, so I think we were tested. BD (Britton Deerfield) on the first play of the game in Week 9 comes out and scores on us. These kids have weathered the challenge on it and they understand, they play together as a team.”

Suttons Bay had another turnover on downs in Lenawee Christian territory in the third quarter, which turned into three points for the Cougars as Brady McKelvey nailed a 28-yard field goal to extend the lead to 17-12 with 2:02 remaining in the period.

Defense continued to carry the second half well into the fourth quarter, when the first touchdown of the half was scored with only 6:21 left in the game. Clay Ayers, who battled injury, ran the ball in for the Cougars to extend the lead to 24-12. Ayers was limited to only seven carries, but he showed well when it mattered most.

Suttons Bay fired back just 1:06 later with a deep pass from quarterback Dylan Barnowski to Periard for a 55-yard touchdown to cut the Cougars’ lead to 24-20 after Bramer’s ensuing two-point run. In his third consecutive Final, Periard had 209 yards from scrimmage. In also his final high school game, this loss was the most heartbreaking.

“Obviously, the previous two hurt pretty bad, but I think this one was the most because it’s my last time ever playing football and we were so close to pulling this one off,” Periard said. “So this year’s definitely the worst, in my opinion.”

Any doubt of the game’s finish was put away with a 33-yard run from Bryja to slam the door. Bryja, also Lenawee Christian’s quarterback, threw for 229 yards and ran for 161 and two touchdowns, in addition to his interception return.

At the end of the day, the Norsemen didn’t falter, but it was tough to overcome the Cougars.

“Sometimes you have the cards falling your way, and sometimes you don’t,” Suttons Bay coach Garrick Opie said. “Today was one of those days where timing mixed with lack of execution or otherwise. Or the fact that Lenawee Christian is just a very good team, was just very tough.”

The 2022 Adrian Lenawee Christian senior class finished 24-0 in leading the program’s first two seasons of 8-player football.

“They’re going to leave as the all-time winningest group in school history. They will have the single-season win record. They will have a ton of stuff,” Wilharms said. “As a collective group, oh my goodness, what a wonderful, wonderful group.”

Click for the full box score.

PHOTOS (Top) Lenawee Christian’s Ashur Bryja (15) breaks into the open on the way to a second-quarter touchdown. (Middle) Suttons Bay’s Hugh Periard (1) makes a cut as the Cougars’ Clay Ayers (2) attempts to wrap him up. (Photos by Cara Kamps. Click for more.)

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.)