Preview: Favorites to Meet in Final

November 18, 2016

By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor

It’s easy to promote tonight’s MHSAA 8-Player Football Final at Legacy Field in Greenville as the meeting of the two best teams in the state this season.

Powers North Central and Deckerville entered the playoffs both undefeated and with the highest and second-highest playoff-point averages, respectively, in the division. And both have surged through the playoffs despite impressive opponents attempting to get in the way.

The Jets are known for a high-flying offense, while the Eagles are powered by a stifling defense – and yet, both are pretty strong on the other sides of the ball as well. See below for a glance at both teams, and if you can’t make it to Greenville the game also will be broadcast live on FoxSportsDetroit.com, with live audio streaming on MHSAANetwork.com. On-demand video will be available shortly after the game’s conclusion at MHSAA.tv. 

(Statistics below are through Regional Finals unless noted. Rankings are based on playoff-point averages at the end of the regular season.)

DECKERVILLE
Record:
 11-0, No. 2
Coach: Bill Brown, 24th season (190-69)
League finish: First in North Central Thumb League.
Championship history: 8-Player champion 2012.
Best wins: 36-6 over No. 4 Wyoming Tri-unity Christian in the Semifinal, 58-12 over No. 6 New Haven Merritt in the Regional Final, 40-0 over No. 11 Webberville in the Regional Semifinal.  
Players to watch: RB/DB Austin Fritch, 6-0/175 sr. (1,305 yards/23 TDs rushing); FB/LB Wade Saldana, 5-8/170 sr. (596 yards/13 TDs rushing); QB/DB Brandon Pattullo, 6-0/180 sr. (379 yards/9 TDs rushing, 496 yards/8 TDs passing); LB/OG Reese Bays-Kramer, 5-11/180 sr.; DT/SE Austin Spaetzel, 6-0/210 sr.
Outlook: Deckerville’s defense has gotten a lot of attention this week, and rightfully so – the Eagles have given up a mere 50 points this season and only 18 combined the last two weeks against previously-undefeated playoff teams. Bays-Kramer and Spaetzel lead on that side of the ball, playing massive roles in helping the team to five shutouts while never giving up more than 12 points in a game. But we shouldn’t forget the offense, which was especially dominant last week running for more than 400 yards without attempting a pass. Fritch added 263 yards and four touchdowns to his totals above, giving him 1,568 yards and 27 scores rushing this season, and the team as a whole has run for 3,417 yards while needing to throw for only 517. All 11 wins have been by at least 22 points.

POWERS NORTH CENTRAL
Record:
 12-0, No. 1
Coach: Kevin Bellefeuil, 11th season (64-52) 
League finish: First in Western 8 Conference.
Championship history: 8-Player champion 2015.
Best wins: 60-50 (Regional Final) and 60-42 over No. 8 Crystal Falls Forest Park, 68-32 over No. 12 Stephenson, 62-22 over No. 9 Pickford in the Semifinal, 76-18 and 64-0 (Regional Semifinal) over No. 16 Rapid River.
Players to watch: QB/DB Jason Whitens, 6-4/210, sr. (2,170 yards/40 TDs passing, 536 yards/15 TDs rushing, 2 punt return TDs); RB/DB Bobby Kleiman, 5-9/175, sr. (594 yards/9 TDs rushing, 452 yards/10 TDs receiving, 3 interception return TDs, 3 punt return TDs); WR/DT Dylan Gagne, 5-8/175, sr. (439 yards/10 TDs receiving, 290 yards/4 TDs rushing); WR/DB Marcus Krachinski, 6-0/170 sr. (549 yards/10 TDs receiving); RB/LB Tyler Bentley, 5-7/175 sr. (541 yards/9 TDs rushing, 351 yards/3 TDs receiving).
Outlook: North Central remains undefeated in two seasons of 8-player football, bolstered by a Whitens-led offense averaging 67.4 points per game – only a few off last season’s average of 70.4. In fact, a loss would be the first for these seniors in either football or basketball since 2014 – Whitens, Kleiman, Krachinski, junior linebacker Lucas Dombrowski and senior center Ryan Plunger all also saw time in last winter’s Class D hoops Final as the Jets finished a second straight undefeated run in that sport. For the second straight football season, no opponent has come within single digits of North Central; only Forest Park got the deficit down to 10. Whitens added another 226 yards and three scores passing last week, giving him 2,396 and 43 total this fall.

The MHSAA Football Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.

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.)