By Jason Schmitt
Special for Second Half
BROOKLYN – Never one to refuse a challenge, Benzie Central’s Hunter Jones certainly accepted the challenge presented to him Saturday at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Boys Cross Country Finals.
The sophomore successfully repeated as Division 3 individual champion, finishing the course at Michigan International Speedway in a time of 15:28.96. And part of the challenge was that he had to run by himself — nearly 30 seconds ahead of his next-nearest competitor and in the first of two races in his division. Due to COVID-19 safety measures, each division was separated into two races.
“He was chasing the times from yesterday,” said his coach, Asa Kelly, referring to a pair of sub-15 minute performances by Hartland’s Riley Hough and Ann Arbor Skyline’s Hobbs Kessler in the Division 1 Finals. “That’s definitely where he sees himself, running up there with guys like that. It’s so hard to go out there by yourself. It’s tough, but it is what it is, running in separate divisions like that.”
Jones said he had to change up his strategy a bit due to the unusual circumstances.
“I usually look at my times and gauge myself out on the course, but I really didn’t have that today,” said Jones, who beat his time on the same course from a year ago by 17 seconds. “I just have to remember to keep pushing through, and it worked out for me today. It felt great to get back here (and win), and I can’t wait for the next two years.”
Kelly sees the work Jones puts in each and every single day yet is still impressed every time his sophomore adds to his list of accomplishments.
“Back to back state champ and you’re only a sophomore, only the second kid that’s done that so far,” Kelly said. “He has a really high bar set for himself, and every single day he works his tail off to get to this race. He definitely deserves everything he gets out there.”
Cass City senior Nick McArdle finished second overall in a time of 15:58.9. New Lothrop senior Carson Hersch was third, followed by Memphis senior Tyler Carlson and Manton junior Noah Morrow in the top five.
St. Louis captured the team title, finishing with a team score of 103 points to beat out Hart (116), the pre-race favorite. The Sharks had four runners finish among the top 23 overall, led by junior Aaron Bowerman, who crossed the line ninth in a time of 16:26.66. Also scoring for the team were senior Keegan Honig, junior Nate March, freshman Ben March and senior Joe Erickson.
“We knew there were five or six really good teams that could really make a run for it, and we wanted to put ourselves in a position to have that opportunity,” St. Louis coach Jay Puffpaff said after the race. “In a year like this, with all this adversity all around us, just being out here with an opportunity to bring home a state championship to our community, it means everything. The kids embraced that opportunity all year long and ran for each other the whole way.”
It was the first Finals championship for the Sharks since 2005, when they took home a Division 4 crown.
Senior Alex Enns paced Hart with his fourth-place finish. He crossed the line in a time of 16:21.59.
Traverse City St. Francis was third with 182 points, while Grandville Calvin Christian (186) and Hanover-Horton (205) rounded out the top five teams.
PHOTOS: (Top) Benzie Central’s Hunter Jones approaches the finish line at MIS during the Division 3 Finals on Saturday. (Middle) St. Louis’ Keegan Honig (173) and Nate March (175) push through the final stretch with Ithaca’s Espen Lehnst. (Click for more from RunMichigan.com.)
NILES – On any autumn weekday afternoon, Aiden Krueger can be found using his legs to carry him across the campus of Niles High School.
After cross country practice, the Vikings' senior literally runs over to the tennis courts to work out with the boys tennis team.
The fall dual-sport athlete has managed to make a significant impact on both programs during his career at Niles.
In cross country, Krueger is a two-time Lower Peninsula Division 2 Finals qualifier and recently broke a long-standing school record in the 5,000-meter (3.1 mile) race.
In Saturday's Berrien County Meet held at Lake Township Park in Bridgman, Krueger's first-place time of 15:55.5 broke Jeff Ort's 33-year record of 16:05 set in 1992.
Breaking the school record was one of two main goals that Krueger, the Vikings' No. 1 runner, and his head coach Tony Todd and assistant coach Jason Todd set prior to the start of the 2023 season.
"It felt great to take down a school record that's been there for so long. On the day of the Berrien County Meet, my coaches and I talked about how I felt that day. They could tell I was feeling really good, so we went for it," Krueger said. "I felt great the entire race, and my body responded very well. My coaches were at the one and two-mile mark to let me know where I was at. I was able to squeeze out a record time, and the feeling of being able to share that moment with my family, coaches and teammates was unmatched. It's a day that I'll cherish for a very long time."
While Krueger always has shown a natural ability for running, he soon realized he needed to increase his offseason training in order to reach his career goals.
"Aiden is naturally gifted. He broke the eighth-grade two-mile record in cross country, so we knew he was going to be a special runner. What we didn't know at that time was how strong of a runner he was in terms of his mental preparedness. He was a quick study coming into the program as a freshman, but natural ability will only take you so far. There is a lot more that goes into becoming an elite distance runner," Tony Todd said.
Despite running very little over the summer prior to the start of his freshman season, Krueger still managed to post some respectable times in the 17:20s, but he narrowly missed qualifying for the Finals.
Following a couple of years of running track & field for Niles, and with running higher mileage the last three summers, Krueger feels he has prepared himself well enough to attain his ultimate goal of earning all-state (Top 30) at this year's Finals on Saturday, Nov. 4, at Michigan International Speedway.
"Aiden isn't afraid of hard work. He ran 55 miles per week this summer, and up to this point we haven't backed him off from that number very much," said Niles' head coach. "We've been concentrating on consistency, and once the state meet is about a month away we'll start him on more speedwork."
Krueger, a three-time all-Wolverine Conference and all-Regional runner as well, has the opportunity to graduate as one of Niles' most decorated athletes ever with 14 varsity letters.
Well-respected by his teammates, Krueger was selected as one of the Vikings' team captains this fall.
"Aiden is a very positive person and is always encouraging his teammates," said Niles' head coach.
Entering Tuesday's Wolverine Conference tri-meet in Sturgis with the host Trojans and Otsego, Krueger hadn't lost a league race yet and finished first individually in five of Niles' first eight meets. He ran 16:40 or better in five of those meets as well.
As the season progresses and Krueger prepares for this weekend's prestigious Portage Invitational, he knows what he has to do to reach those goals.
"Right now it's real important for me to get out fast and get into a good position so I can figure out when exactly I need to sit back and when I need to move up," Krueger said.
"As we reach the bigger meets like conference and Regionals, there are a lot of good runners. My coaches help me familiarize myself with who is at those races and who I need to go out and run with. I thank God who gave me the ability to run, along with the support of my coaches and family."
Krueger plans to end his competitive running career once he has finished high school. His parents, Robert and Korrie Krueger, own Milano's Pizza in Niles, and his future plans are to help out with the family business or attend trade school.
Krueger didn't play tennis as a freshman, but made an immediate impact as a doubles player the last two years on the varsity. Since cross country is Krueger's priority sport, Niles head boys tennis coach Jill Weber felt it would be more beneficial for the team if he played singles this fall.
"Aiden was real receptive to the change. As coaches, we just thought it would be easier to replace him in singles rather than have a doubles partner be forced to play with someone they weren't familiar with," said Weber, who has coached the Niles boys team the last 18 seasons and the girls squad for 20 years.
Krueger was sporting a record of 13-2 and was undefeated in the Wolverine at No. 2 singles at the end of last week. His only losses came in nonleague matches to Coldwater and Kalamazoo Christian.
"Aiden has an extraordinary work ethic. He works really hard, but at the same time he enjoys it and has fun. He usually only needs two or three games to figure out what he needs to do to win a match," Weber said. "I have so much confidence in him to get the job done."
Weber is amazed at how Krueger juggles his time off the court with school and cross country.
She used Saturday, Sept. 9, as an example of his commitment to both sports.
Krueger started that day competing with the cross country team at the Kalamazoo Loy-Norrix Mini-Meet, a race he won in a then personal-best time of 16:31.4. He then jumped in the car with his parents, who drove him to Mattawan where the Vikings' tennis team was competing in a tournament.
"Mattawan was gracious enough to put Aiden on one of the later courts so he could play all three of his matches once he was finished with his cross country meet," Weber explained.
Krueger won all three of his tennis matches.
"That was a pretty exciting day for Aiden. He just takes it all in stride and isn't a showboat on the court. When he's on the court he has a way of making friends with his opponents and makes good calls and shows good sportsmanship. A lot of people have nothing but good things to say about him," Weber said.
"As far as his ability on the court, Aiden is a very tricky player to figure out and has a lot of weapons. He has a good dropshot, can lob the ball, hit an angle shot or hit an approach shot and draw you out of position."
Krueger is well-respected by his tennis teammates as well.
"Everyone loves Aiden. He likes to joke around, but he truly enjoys every one of his teammates and respects them all equally. He's a good student and had the team over to his house for a team dinner recently," Weber said.
Knowing how important Krueger's senior season of running was to him, Weber spoke with Tony Todd before the year began about his role with the tennis and cross country teams.
"I understood how important running is to Aiden this year. The last thing I want to do is stress a kid out. He's done a nice job for us in tennis, but we're not expecting a great deal out of him. I want him to be able to concentrate on his cross country goals," Weber said.
Krueger's older brother Andrew Krueger played tennis for Niles a few years ago, and that sparked Aiden's interest in the game.
"I participated in some summer tennis camps back when I was in seventh grade. I liked my experience playing doubles the last couple years, but singles is a challenge because you have only yourself to rely on and the court is smaller," Krueger said.
Krueger describes himself as confident on the court, and he considers himself more of baseline player.
"I'm really comfortable on the baseline, and my tennis goals are to just try and finish the year with the best record I can in the conference and help my team do as well as we possibly can," Krueger said.
Scott Hassinger is a contributing sportswriter for Leader Publications and previously served as the sports editor for the Three Rivers Commercial-News from 1994-2022. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Berrien, Cass, St. Joseph and Branch counties.
PHOTOS (Top) Niles’ Aiden Krueger crosses the finish line after winning his race during a home meet this season against Edwardsburg. (Middle) Krueger follows through on a forehand shot during a Wolverine Conference match earlier this season. (Top photo by Scott Novak/Leader Publications. Middle photo by Kelly Sweeney/Leader Publications.)