Next Players Up Keep Whiteford Surging

October 5, 2017

By Doug Donnelly
Special for Second Half

OTTAWA LAKE – For many smaller Class C football teams, losing four starters to injuries during the first six weeks of the season would be devastating.

In Ottawa Lake, however, probably only those close to the Whiteford football program have noticed.

Despite the injury bug, the Bobcats are rolling like never before in school history. They are 6-0, averaging 53 points per game and sit alone atop the Tri-County Conference. The key is an unusual amount of depth – and a 28-player roster with 14 seniors and 14 juniors.

“Some of it has to do with a couple of innate classes, with more than the usual amount of kids,” sixth-year Bobcats coach Jason Mensing said. “There’s always an ebb and flow from one grade to the next. But, what we are experiencing is different. In Hunter Lake, not only did we lose a running back, but he was also a cornerback, kick returner and punt returner. And, Alex (Kohler) is a second-year starting guard, but is also our punter and he kicked off.”

Typically, only two or three players start on both sides of the ball for the Bobcats – a rare occurrence for a team has played in the Division 8 playoffs each of the past four seasons (they were in Division 7 in 2012).

“We try and coach every kid the same,” Mensing said. “That’s a very important piece. We really try and develop every player into a starting player. The ultimate goal is to make sure every kid gets on the field.”

Part of the reason the Bobcats have developed such depth is their deep playoff runs the past couple of seasons. The 2015 team advanced to the Division 8 Semifinals, and last year the Bobcats played in the championship game at Ford Field against Muskegon Catholic Central. Since Mensing arrived at Whiteford, he has invited every junior varsity player to practice with the varsity for all of the playoff weeks.

“Those playoff runs have allowed our JV players a ton of extra practice over the past couple of seasons,” Mensing said. “If you think about that, it’s another season and then some. That makes a really big difference, especially the first two weeks or so of the next season. The players come in and already know what to expect, and they know the routine and the pace. They are playing at a higher level at an earlier time.”

Mensing and his staff of 10 varsity coaches work with grades 9-12 in practice on a daily basis.

“That’s a critical piece of coaching – every kid is receiving the same instruction,” he said.

A Tecumseh graduate and former Adrian College football player, Mensing is 53-13 since becoming head coach of the Bobcats, giving him the highest winning percentage of any coach in school history. The program has never been stronger – six straight playoff appearances, a 9-0 regular season last year and two consecutive 9-0 seasons by the JV team. He said he developed his coaching style from playing small college football.

“My background is small college football,” he said. “It always seemed to me to be the best way to operate that I know.”

Whiteford’s offense has rushed for more than 2,200 yards heading into Friday’s game against Sand Creek – an average of about 10 yards a carry. Many of those yards are gained behind 6-foot-5, 280-pound all-state tackle Lucas Tesznar. Jacob Lewis, Jordan Book and Jaret Atherton all are starting for a second year on the offensive line. There are five solid backups in the mix, too, who have received plenty of playing time even though Whiteford has had a running clock at some point in each of its six games.

“At the line of scrimmage we have guys who can come in and play that would start in just about any other year,” Mensing said.

Whiteford lost two 1,000-yard running backs to graduation after last season, but have found several capable replacements in six juniors: Logan Murphy (823 yards on just 61 carries), Zach Bertz (266 yards and 10 touchdowns), Nathan Bauman (258 yards), Ty Eitniear (188 yards) and Lake (148 yards in three games). Bradyn Clark-Gilmore started the season at running back and had a 100-yard game but shifted to tight end and is now the leading receiver on the team (280 yards on 11 receptions).

Thomas Eitniear is the Bobcats’ quarterback. As the starting signal-caller, Eitniear is 29-4, already setting a record for most starts and wins by a Whiteford QB. He holds the school record for career passing touchdowns and is nearing the school record for career passing yards. This season he has 567 yards passing and 409 yards rushing. He’s committed to play baseball at the University of Toledo next year.

“We’ve got a Division I athlete playing quarterback,” Mensing said. “He is a difference-maker. I can’t tell you how many drives or even games have changed over the last three years because of him making a big play.”

Inside linebacker Eli Shelton, safety Abba Risley, cornerback Ty Eitniear (three interceptions) and end Ethan Inman have been standouts on defense. Jack Garrison stepped up when Lake was injured and had several big games. One of the few two-way starters, Matthew Taylor, has been solid all season.

Mensing said players like Thomas Eitniear and Murphy won’t put up gaudy numbers because of the system they are in, but that doesn’t make them any less effective.

“It’s not about any one individual effort,” he said. “It’s about a collective group. That’s what we’ve always been about.”

Whiteford is seeking to win back-to-back league championships for the first time in more than 50 years, the last time when it was a member of the River Raisin Conference. They have games remaining against Sand Creek (3-3), Clinton (4-2) and Britton Deerfield (1-5) on the regular-season schedule. Then the playoffs begin. Lake and Kohler are expected back before the end of the season to help solidify the depth.

“We still have room to show improvement from week to week,” Mensing said. “As long as we continue to improve, and if we can continue to get better over the next three weeks, it will determine where we will end up on the season.”

Doug Donnelly has served as a sports and news reporter and city editor over 25 years, writing for the Daily Chief-Union in Upper Sandusky, Ohio from 1992-1995, the Monroe Evening News from 1995-2012 and the Adrian Daily Telegram since 2013. He's also written a book on high school basketball in Monroe County and compiles record books for various schools in southeast Michigan. E-mail him at [email protected] with story ideas for Lenawee and Monroe counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Ottawa Lake Whiteford’s Eli Shelton, standing for the national anthem, is one of the defense’s standouts this fall. (Middle) Quarterback Thomas Eitniear takes off around a corner during his third season as a starter. (Below) From left: Jacob Lewis, Lucas Tesznar and coach Jason Mensing confer on the sideline. (Top and middle photos by Carl Hayes, below photo by Doug Donnelly.)

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.)