Talented QB, Veteran Lineup Elevating Churchill Into League, D2 Challenger

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

September 22, 2021

The first item on the docket when one assesses the first half of the season for the Livonia Churchill football team is its 28-21 victory over Belleville on Sept. 10.

But turn back the pages and you'll find the success coach Bill DeFillippo and his Chargers are experiencing began during the pre-pandemic season of 2019.

Churchill (4-0) is expected to be tested again Friday when it travels to Dearborn High (3-1) in a Kensington Lakes Activities Association East game. Dearborn's loss was to Belleville (49-0). Churchill is tied with Dearborn Fordson (4-0) for first place at 3-0 in the East. Belleville (3-1) and Dearborn are a game back.

Two years ago DeFillippo started eight sophomores on a team that lost to Belleville 35-14 and finished 7-5 after a 1-4 start. Churchill was 6-3 during last year's COVID-shortened season, and expectations were high heading into this fall – especially with the return of quarterback Taj Williams.

Considered one of the top offensive-minded coaches in the Detroit area, DeFillippo is in his ninth season as Churchill's head coach. The previous five seasons he was the program's offensive coordinator under coach John Filiatraut. DeFillippo cut his teeth as the offensive coordinator at Ann Arbor Huron (1990-99) under coach Paul Verska. The 1997 Huron team reached the MHSAA Class AA Final before losing to Detroit Catholic Central, 23-7.

DeFillippo continues to run the offense, and his specialty is working with quarterbacks. With Williams, he has another in a long line of talented ones.

Beginning with Seth Suda in 2011, DeFillippo coached five quarterbacks who went on to play in college (one, Drew Alsobrooks, is on the Central Michigan baseball roster). Williams is quite possibly headed toward becoming his sixth.

Williams started a few games as a sophomore at Churchill. Before his junior season, his family followed a job move to Stockbridge, Ga., (Stockbridge High School), where Williams started three games before suffering a broken collarbone.

He's recovered well from that injury and has shown improvement in his return to Churchill, particularly in the passing game. Simply, Williams makes the offense go.

Livonia Churchill footballAt 5-foot-11 and 205 pounds, Williams has always been a strong runner. This season he's become a true dual threat throwing for 10 touchdowns and just one interception. He's also rushed for three touchdowns, and his completion success is a tad under 70 percent.

In addition to his growth physically, Williams is playing with a chip on his shoulder. As a freshman he attended Belleville, where he was a starter on the junior varsity before transferring to Churchill. There were those who muttered that Williams feared the competition he faced at Belleville, and thus the transfer. The truth is, his family simply moved to Livonia.

“I have a lot to prove to a lot of people,” Williams said. “People doubted me. (People) said I left Belleville because I wouldn't play there.”

Williams owes his development to a handful of coaches, DeFillippo obviously included. Williams also credits his Stockbridge coach for assisting in his improvement as a pocket passer. Then there's Terrance Williams, Taj's uncle, who's the running backs coach at Churchill and has served as another mentor.

On a day-to-day basis, at practice or at home, Williams confides in DeFillippo. Take a Saturday afternoon for example. Both will be at their homes watching a college game, and they'll compare notes as to what type of offense a particular team is running. One will see a play work, and that'll start a conversation on what they can do to expand Churchill’s offense.

“(DeFillippo) has been very helpful,” Williams said. “He teaches me about the game. He breaks it down – how to learn my progressions.”

DeFillippo's shotgun spread scheme features Williams and his versatility, but there's much more to this offense that's averaging 42 points per game. Running back Boston Clegg is one of eight three-year starters, and his power running style allows Williams room to maneuver on the perimeter. Clegg started at linebacker his sophomore and junior seasons, but DeFillippo has limited his play on defense this season to keep him fresh on offense.

Josh Brown and Bailey Brooks have big-play potential at the receiver spot. The left side of the offensive line is anchored by tackle Matt Landis (6-4, 240) and guard Lawrence Nash-Martin (6-3, 285).

The defense allowed 54 points over the first two games, but has played well since. The line is loaded with experience as Demarius Gibson-Wells (DT), Kameron Balhorn (DE) and VJ Ragland (DE) are all three-year starters. Brown starts at cornerback and also returns kicks.

There are no big-time college recruits in the mix, but many of the seniors are being recruited by Division II and FCS schools.

“We have a lot of very good high school players,” said DeFillippo, a teacher in the Livonia school system since 1994. “We're a blue-collar community. We have a lot of kids who need football and love the sport.”

Churchill is ranked No. 2 in Division 2 according to the latest Associated Press poll, and DeFillippo is quick to point out that two KLAA East teams – Belleville and Fordson – are ranked in the top 10 in Division 1.

Belleville (3-1) remains the measuring stick for teams in the KLAA. The Tigers reached the MHSAA Division 1 Semifinals both of the past two seasons, losing to eventual champ West Bloomfield 35-34 in double overtime to cap last year’s extended run.

“It's (was) our fourth time playing them since they entered the KLAA four years ago,” DeFillippo said of this season’s Belleville win. “The first time we led at halftime, then lost. They jumped us in 2019 when we had all those sophomores and it was 21-14 in the fourth quarter last season.

“We have played them as well as anyone in our league. We gained a lot of confidence with that win. We executed, and our players played out of their minds.

“We know we have the target on our backs after that.”

After this week, Churchill has Livonia Franklin, Fordson and Livonia Stevenson left to play in the division before ending the regular season with a KLAA crossover. As the smallest school by enrollment in the KLAA and one of two teams (Franklin is the other) that does not compete in Division 1, Churchill is sure to benefit from the tough schedule as it prepares for the postseason.

Tom Markowski primarily covered high school sports for the The Detroit News from 1984-2014, focusing on the Detroit area and contributing to statewide coverage of football and basketball. He also is a former correspondent and web content director for State Champs! Sports Network. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Taj Williams (7) and his Churchill teammates take the field this season. (Middle) Williams’ return to the field this fall has been a big part of his team’s 4-0 start. (Photos courtesy of the Livonia Churchill football program.)

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.)