Sailors Eye 'Their Turn' after QB Moves On

August 25, 2015

By Dean Holzwarth
Special for Second Half

CUTLERVILLE – With the 2015 season opener against Grand Rapids Christian a few days away, South Christian football coach Mark Tamminga said quarterback isn’t a position that's stressing him out.

That statement might be a bit surprising considering Tamminga graduated this spring one of the most prolific passers in Michigan High School Athletic Association history.

Jon Wassink capped a banner high school career last fall by guiding the Sailors to a Division 4 championship with a dramatic 28-27 win over Lansing Sexton.

Wassink, a three-year starter, took his talents to Western Michigan University, but not before finishing second all-time in the MHSAA record book for career passing yards with 8,124.

In fact, Wassink’s name appears in the MHSAA record book 17 times despite playing only three varsity seasons. He’s third in career passing attempts (884), second in completions (584) and fifth in touchdown passes (76).

“We’re never going to replace a Jon Wassink; there’s no doubt about that,” Tamminga said after practice last week. “But I have two kids right now fighting for the quarterback position, and whichever one gets the job is going to be a very good high school quarterback. Maybe an all-conference quarterback, I’m not sure, but the quarterback position right now is pretty far down on my worry list.

“We have other things to worry about. Our line, our receivers, but we’re going to be fine with our quarterback. We’re going to score some points.”

Besides Wassink, the Sailors graduated a bevy of talent from a senior class that won 12 straight games after an 0-2 start to win their second MHSAA Final in three seasons.

Eighteen starters are gone, leaving behind a young team stacked with juniors and sophomores.

The only remaining starters are seniors Ezinga, Niewiek, John Masselink (TE/S) and Dylan Brink (RB/LB).

“We lost a great senior class, all the way down,” Tamminga said. “They were such great leaders, and the kids rallied around them. I told this year’s group that it’s their turn. They have to step up. You can win games with underclassmen, but to win consistently you have to have senior leadership, and that’s what I need from those guys. So far they have shown that, and we’re pretty proud of them.”

The person attempting to fill the void left by Wassink was yet to be determined at the start of this week. Junior Eric Dykstra and sophomore Andrew Haan are vying for the starting position.

Dykstra is the frontrunner, but recently suffered a wrist injury. That allowed Haan to take a majority of reps in practice and during the Sailors’ preseason scrimmage.

Tamminga said both have the potential to step in and lead this year’s squad.

“I would say Eric has the upper hand if healthy, but it is so close,” he said. “We don’t lose a beat with Andrew in there either. Both of them realize they have big shoes to fill, but what is so great is they don’t feel they have to be the next Jonny Wassink. They are going to be them, and they are going to be very good high school quarterbacks.”

South Christian also will miss Wassink’s ability to run the ball. He rushed for 3,252 yards and 50 touchdowns in three seasons.

“He definitely made big plays with his arm and his legs, which I think is going to hurt us the most,” Sailors’ right guard Josh Ezinga said. “He was such a two-dimensional player that defenses had to either prepare for him running-wise or passing-wise.

“And even though as a lineman you try not to miss a block, it happens once in a while, and he would just make a play and make you look like you’re the best in the world because he would make people miss.”

The absence of Wassink will be felt from a leadership standpoint as well. He wasn’t only a playmaker, he was there to help the younger players improve.

“Obviously Jon was a great player, but he also was a great leader,” senior wide receiver Jake Niewiek said. “He helped me a lot when I was getting started with the offense. Being a receiver in the system was a little complicated, but he really took us under his wing and showed us what we had to do.”

But Tamminga said adjustments have been made to atone for Wassink not being on the field in 2015.

“We basically had it pretty easy when he was here, and now we have to step up and coach to our strengths,” he said. “You have to coach differently because Jonny was like having another coach on the field. These kids are not going to be able to do the things that Jonny did. We have to adjust as coaches to compensate for that.”

The key losses by the Sailors have other teams chomping at the bit to dethrone the two-time Ottawa-Kent Gold champions.  

But while others may deem this a down year, South Christian hopes to maintain the same tradition of winning to which it has become accustomed.

“I think there are different expectations for us from the public and the media, but I think all the pieces of the puzzle are there and we can still be a great team this year,” Ezinga said. “I definitely think we can win with sophomores and juniors, and they realize they have to go hard every single play.”

Niewiek agreed that this year’s team can still be a formidable challenger.

“Practices have been great and everyone has been working their butts off,” he said. “We obviously have lower expectations than last year, but we hope to surprise some people. We want to keep the bar set high.”

Tamminga said the first goal is to get to six wins, which won’t be easy with three straight playoff teams on the schedule to open the season.

“We want to make the playoffs,” he said. “Just make the playoffs, but what worries me is if we don’t have three good games and go 0-3. I still believe we can go 6-3 and make the playoffs. They have to believe it, and that’s the challenge ahead of us right now.”

Dean Holzwarth covered primarily high school sports for the Grand Rapids Press and MLive for 16 years and more recently served as sports editor of the Ionia Sentinel and as a sports photojournalist for WZZM. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Allegan, Kent and Ottawa counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) South Christian’s Jake Niewiek celebrates a turnover during last season’s Division 4 Final at Ford Field. (Middle) The Sailors’ Jake Elzinga works to stay in front of a Sexton ball carrier; both he and Niewiek return this fall. 

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.)