Unbeaten Rochester Finding Stride

By Tom Markowski
Special for Second Half

October 15, 2020

Long treading near the bottom of the highly-competitive Oakland Activities Association, Rochester football has parlayed a revamped practice schedule with a young quarterback and a break in scheduling into one of the best starts in program history.

Erik Vernon in his 11th season as Rochester’s head coach, and he and his staff – notably defensive coordinator Nick Reed – were confident that this season had the potential to be something special.

The Falcons (4-0) are averaging 49 points a game, the defense has earned two shutouts, and Rochester is on the verge of completing what would be the fourth undefeated regular season in school history.

Not since 1993 had Rochester won its first four games. That season the Falcons finished 9-0 before losing to Detroit Henry Ford in an MHSAA Class AA Pre-Regional.

Beyond Vernon, his staff and players, few would have imagined Rochester starting this season in such dominating fashion, highlighted by a 42-20 victory over Bloomfield Hills on Oct. 2. Should Rochester defeat two other much-improved teams – Ferndale (3-1) and Berkley (4-0) – in its final two regular-season games, the Falcons would finish 6-0.

Rochester was 1-8 last season and has just three winning seasons since 1999. Of its eight losses in 2019, just one – a 44-38 defeat to Troy Athens – was close. Its season ended with a 35-14 loss to Bloomfield Hills.

Nevertheless, Vernon said much was accomplished despite these rather disappointing results.

“It’s been fun,” Vernon said of his team’s quick start. “We’ve had some rough years. We’ve been lucky. The offensive line is playing well, and our skill players are good.

“The guy who really makes us go is a sophomore. He’s our quarterback, Alex Bueno. He’s completed 80 percent of his passes and thrown 13 touchdown passes and no interceptions. It’s impressive. He’s the one who makes the difference.”

At 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds, Bueno won’t wow anyone with his size. But don’t be misled. Bueno is a playmaker and has shown the upperclassmen he has the leadership qualities expected of his position.

The experience Bueno gained last season playing against teams like Birmingham Seaholm and Lake Orion has paid dividends; Lake Orion was 9-2 last fall and Seaholm was 9-4 and reached an MHSAA Division 2 Semifinal. Rochester and Bueno took their lumps in both, but there were lessons to be learned.

“(Bueno) has a presence on the field,” Vernon said. “He’s got a lot of confidence. That confidence piece is huge. We got beat bad by Seaholm and Lake Orion, but he made some plays.”

Bueno has had help. Lots of it. Let’s start at the receiver spot, where all four starters return led by senior Bobby Kronner. Kronner led his team in receptions as a junior and is the leading receiver again. He has average size (6-0, 160) but, like the vast majority of his teammates, he’s a multi-sport athlete who uses his athleticism to create opportunities.

Senior left tackle Noah Howes (6-4, 260), a heavyweight wrestler, is one of two starters back on the offensive line. And the defense is one of the best Vernon has had during his tenure. This unit has recorded 27 tackles for losses to this point. Last season the defense recorded 24 TFLs.

Much of the credit for the improvement on defense goes to Reed, a starting linebacker the last time Rochester qualified for the playoffs in 2010.

“We stop the run really well,” Vernon said. “We rotate kids in and out, and they read their keys well. We’re tackling well, and we play fast.”

Safety Kavan Troy is the sparkplug of the defense. A senior, Troy was an undefeated Division 1 wrestling champion (103 pounds) as a sophomore. He’s weighs 145 pounds now, and it is that toughness earned on the mat that makes Troy such a rugged competitor.

Vernon, like Reed, teaches at the high school, and he also doubles as the head wrestling coach. He attributes much of the success this season to a change in his practice schedule. Two years ago, when these seniors were sophomores, Vernon began having the junior varsity practice with the varsity. The result is the younger players have the opportunity to test their skills against players much bigger, faster and more experienced than themselves.

It was a learning, and often humbling, process. But the switch has produced positive results.

Kronner was on the junior varsity then and is convinced he’s a better player having acquired that experience.

“Sure, you’re getting your butt kicked in practice,” Kronner said. “But you’re going against kids who are bigger than you, and when you’re practicing with the varsity, you’re learning what they do. Usually on JV you run what the varsity runs, but just the basic stuff. It’s a completely different game at the varsity level. It’s faster. Now, it’s become second nature for me.”

Vernon also went to a two-platoon system, and this has helped to create depth on his 40-player squad.

He also said the new rule that allows athletes to play five quarters per week has aided his staff in using players, perhaps on the bubble between the junior varsity and varsity levels, more freely. For example, if a sophomore plays three quarters in a junior varsity game, that player is allowed to play in two quarters of a Friday night varsity contest. Even if that player doesn’t see action, it allows him or her to be a part of the varsity and experience, in uniform, a varsity game.

Scheduling has played a factor. While a recent member of the OAA White (2014-15, 2017-19) Rochester had a combined 8-37 record. When it competed in the Blue (2016), a step below the White in competitiveness, Rochester finished 5-4. This season the Falcons were again moved down to the Blue. The result was Rochester doesn’t have Oakland County traditional powers like Oak Park, Rochester Adams, Birmingham Groves and Lake Orion on its schedule.

But the league move doesn’t diminish the success the Falcons have had to this point.

Regardless of the circumstances, the players, specifically the 15 seniors, have made significant progress over three seasons. These seniors were 1-8 as members of the freshmen team. The next season the junior varsity was 6-3. Yes, Rochester was 1-8 last season, but the returnees have matured and the addition of Bueno as a full-time starter can’t be overlooked.

“Going into this season the attitude was different,” Kronner said. “(Bueno) has gotten a lot better. He’s bigger, physically. He was tiny last year. You know, he was that little freshman kid. What I did notice last year was that he had a cannon. Even as a freshman, he was reading the defenses. For most freshmen, you’re not reading the defenses. He had more football knowledge than your normal freshman. He’s emerged as a leader. He’s leading some of the older guys. He leads verbally and by example. He’s confident in his abilities. He should be. He’s talented.

“As a senior, our class wanted to go 9-0. With COVID(-19) that’s not possible, so we want to go 6-0. We have room to grow,” Kronner added. “Now we’re not practicing to beat the teams we’re playing. ... We’re practicing to beat the teams we’ll play in the playoffs.” 

Tom Markowski is a correspondent for the State Champs! Sports Network and previously directed its web coverage. He also covered primarily 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. Contact him at [email protected] with story ideas for Oakland, Macomb and Wayne counties.

PHOTOS: (Top) Rochester players celebrate during their undefeated start this season. (Middle) Aiden Harris makes his move into the open field. (Photos courtesy of the Rochester 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.)