Neighbors Rally, Revive 'Community' Stadium

August 31, 2015

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

MOUNT PLEASANT – Josh Wheaton stood admiring the Community Memorial Stadium grass a little less than a year ago, and he knew what was coming next. 

The weeks of trampling to come would produce the same result as every year beginning in mid-September.

“I’m looking at it and thinking, I can’t believe a week ago it was exactly the way you’d want your yard to look,” said Wheaton, a varsity assistant coach for Mount Pleasant’s football team. “And now, it’s this. It’s the same every year. I knew it was coming – and by weeks 7, 8, 9, we were going to be playing in a mud pit.” 

But less than a year later, as the team prepared for its first game last week, Wheaton and his Oilers – and co-tenant Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart as well – all were enjoying something that defied any expectation: a project pulled off so quickly, it spoke well to the name of the stadium the schools share.

In less than a year, supporters of Mount Pleasant High and Sacred Heart Academy raised $600,000, secured another $300,000 in donated work, and assisted in the transformation of the stadium from an aging landmark built 50 years ago to what should again be one of mid-Michigan’s athletic jewels for years to come.

The schools reopened the stadium Friday for a doubleheader. Sacred Heart fell to rival Beal City in the opener, and Mount Pleasant then defeated Midland Dow to finish a night that saw more than 5,000 fans pass through the new gates and witness the official debut of stunning two-tone green turf that served as the main focus of a renovation that has only just begun.

“It is a community that believes in young people and certainly believes in athletics,” Mount Pleasant athletic director Jim Conway said. “I think being in a college town (with Central Michigan University), there’s that collegiate portion to it where the kids start (here), and many end up matriculating over there. And we sit right here in the middle of the city, and being the shared facility, that is kind of the focal point. We were able to use that and people latched on and wanted to be a part of it, and we’re still going.”

If you rebuild it …

Community Memorial Stadium opened in 1965 as the shared home of the Mount Pleasant High and Sacred Heart football and track and field programs. Prior to its construction, the programs had a variety of homes – CMU’s Alumni Field for the Oilers and at times the Irish, who also played at Fancher Field and at Island Park going back to at least the mid 1930s.

The new stadium construction was funded solely by the community and opened Sept. 25, 1965, for what ended as a 26-26 tie between Mount Pleasant and East Lansing. The field has remained a point of local pride since, with junior high games and the town’s rocket football teams also taking regular turns on the grass.

Most weeks during the fall see the stadium host three or four games. But Wheaton said last fall there were three weeks during which 11 games were played.

It’s not that all the activity tore up the field. But it didn’t allow the grass time to regrow after the older kids did their damage on Fridays and Saturdays.

All of that caused Wheaton to casually suggest last fall to Oilers coach Jason McIntyre that the grass should be replaced with synthetic turf. Never will happen, McIntyre responded. That conversation had been had before – including briefly when a bond was passed eight years ago that led to the repair of the locker rooms, concession stand, press box and track at the stadium – and talks about going to turf had never progressed past the idea stage.

Wheaton told his boss he’d take care of it, but nothing more was said on the topic for a couple weeks … until someone else brought it up, and McIntyre joked that Wheaton was all over it.

This time, he ran with it.

In October, Wheaton formed a committee made up of supporters of both schools. They decided they would need to raise all of the money for turf over six months – by April 1 – and split into sub committees to handle fundraising and construction.

“When I first heard about it, I was a little skeptical,” said Sacred Heart athletic director and football coach Rick Roberts, who like McIntyre is a second-generation football coach in the 26,000-resident town and has led his program for 23 years.

“I wasn’t sure we could raise that much money in that short of a time; the economy isn’t the greatest at the moment. But when I went to a meeting, and saw the energy that was around the table, I knew it was going to happen.”

Pillars of the Community

Mount Pleasant High is a Class A public school with about 1,070 students. Sacred Heart is a Class D Catholic school with about 140 enrolled. In those ways, they couldn’t be more different.

But kids at the schools grow up playing Little League baseball or youth basketball together, and a number of Mount Pleasant High families attend Sacred Heart Parish.

And there was plenty of work for all to do, and do quickly.

With money rolling in, the old grass field would need to be dug out to eight inches below the surface. Materials would need to be brought in to refill the base where the synthetic surface would be laid. 

Pennsylvania-based ProGrass did the turf work, but the rest was done with local hands and equipment.

Wheaton made contact with the Isabella County-based Morey Foundation, which pledged to match $200,000 in donations from the community. Committee member Doug Moore is a president with Fisher Companies, which does concrete and asphalt work as well as construction transportation in mid-Michigan, and his company contributed much of the $300,000 in in-kind work.

McGuirk Sand-Gravel, which had also contributed when the stadium originally was built, hauled out the old field, while Malley Construction built the concrete curbs and long jump pits. Contractor Eric Borodychuk constructed the new entrance. Straus Masonry continues to build the wall of bricks and pillars purchased by donors, and other volunteers landscaped the hill near the front gate.

“If you don’t have those kind of people in your community, this doesn’t even get off the ground,” Wheaton said.

“We thought that was there,” Conway said of the support. “This is proof.”

Still work to do 

Oilers senior Zach Heeke remembers teammates turning ankles on the old practice fields in holes left over from shot put tosses the previous spring.

Those are more or less a memory now – the varsities for both schools practice daily at the stadium, sometimes splitting the field down the middle. The subvarsity teams still practice on other fields, but the track and field throwing areas are inside the stadium as part of the new construction.

Heeke is more connected to athletics than a typical high schooler – his dad Dave Heeke is CMU’s athletic director – and Zach appreciates greatly what’s gone into his team’s new home field.

“It’s an honor, for sure. It gives us a lot of motivation,” Heeke said. “All the people who donated money to have this happen, we have to show them that we’re good enough and we want to play here, and we’ve got to play for them. It’s awesome to think of all the people who come to our Friday night games, and maybe they’re not showing up in the stands, but they’re on the wall and they’re thinking about us.”

Two members of the original 1965 stadium committee attended a celebration of the new field Thursday. Roberts, who remembers the stadium’s initial construction, believes the original contributors who have since died would be “thrilled” with how the current community has taken up their work and improved upon it.

Bricks and pillars continue to be sold, for as little as $250 and as much as $25,000, as part of the Pillars for the Community fundraising group the renovation committee set up. That money will fund a phase two that likely will include replacing original concrete and possibly adding new bleachers. Both schools are contributing together annually to a fund that will allow for the necessary regular maintenance and then replacement of the turf in 10-12 years. 

“(The committee) all wanted the same thing. And when you get a bunch of ex-athletes in a room who all want the same thing for kids in the community, it goes pretty well,” Conway said. 

“It’s just been a Mount Pleasant family, if you will."

Geoff Kimmerly joined the MHSAA as its Media & Content Coordinator in Sept. 2011 after 12 years as Prep Sports Editor of the Lansing State Journal. He has served as Editor of Second Half since its creation in Jan. 2012. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for the Barry, Eaton, Ingham, Livingston, Ionia, Clinton, Shiawassee, Gratiot, Isabella, Clare and Montcalm counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) The Community Memorial Stadium turf includes the logos of both its home teams, the shamrock for Sacred Heart and the oil derrick for Mount Pleasant High. (Middle top) Supporters have given to the stadium and the schools' players in multiple ways, from buys bricks and pillars to hanging signs. (Middle below) Sacred Heart runs a play against Beal City during Friday's game. (Bottom) Mount Pleasant High and Midland Dow players warm up before their game Friday night.

A new gate at the north entrance welcomes fans to Mount Pleasant's Community Memorial Stadium. The gate is anchored by pillars highlighting some of the project's largest donors.






The parking lot-side of the stadium pressbox, like field below, includes banners of both teams that share the field.







The uprights are padded specific to the team on the field; red for Sacred Heart's Irish and dark blue for Mount Pleasant High's Oilers.









More than 5,000 fans filled the stadium for Friday's doubleheader, these mostly supporters of Mount Pleasant High after the Sacred Heart game against Beal City had ended.








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.)