Jon Davidson may be retiring, but he isn’t slowing down.
That’s just not something the longtime St. Clair cross country and track coach does.
“Even when I go on vacation,” Davidson said. “If I’m not really, really sore at the end of it, it wasn’t a vacation.”
Davidson, 51, coached his last cross country meet this past Saturday when his Saints placed fourth at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 2 Final at Michigan International Speedway. It ended his 20-year run leading the St. Clair boys program, which included Finals titles in 2012 and 2013, a runner-up finish in 2000, and 12 Regional titles.
He concluded his time as a teacher at St. Clair High School this past spring, and this upcoming track season will be his last.
While that’s a lot off his plate, Davidson will manage to keep his schedule full between the 11 rental homes he owns, his work remodeling homes, and following his youngest son, Ben, around the Midwest as he joins the Ferris State University basketball team in the 2018-19 season.
“If I wouldn’t have had six seniors this year, I probably would have retired from coaching (after 2016-17), too, but I told those guys I wouldn’t leave them,” Davidson said. “Actually, the plan was to retire from teaching and coaching this year, but they offered a buyout (for teachers). It was a lot of planning that all came together at the right time.
“I’m going to miss coaching a lot, but it was time. It had nothing to do with the kids. The kids are just as great as they were when I first started coaching in 1991 -- maybe better.”
Davidson – who began coaching at Clio in 1991 and spent three years at East Kentwood before moving to St. Clair in 1996 – took over the Saints cross country program in 1998. He coached both the girls and boys teams in 1998 and 1999, leading the girls to their first Finals appearance in program history before turning the reins over prior to the 2000 season.
With the boys, he turned a program that didn’t have enough runners to compete as a team in the Regional the year before he took over into one that was perennially among the state’s best.
While all of that success is a great source of pride for Davidson, it pales in comparison to his favorite part of the job.
“The thing that means the most to me is all the friends I made with my runners,” Davidson said. “There are guys who have graduated who are some of my best friends. Obviously winning the state championships were amazing memories, and going from not qualifying for state to taking second in 2000. But the best part of it is all the friends I still have that were my runners, and the opportunity to change kids’ lives.”
The feeling was mutual from his athletes. Davidson has been a member of the bridal party in weddings of his runners, and was recently the best man in the wedding of Addis Habtewold, who won an individual Finals championship under Davidson in 2007.
He often meets up with former runners, whether it be for a meal while they’re back in town, or taking trips with them to going skiing or hiking.
“Coach Davidson was the closest friend I had in high school,” said Brennan Shafer, the No. 1 runner on the 2012 Division 2 championship team. “He always knew what was best for me. He was always there when I needed him. He showed me what hard work and dedication was and where it could take me and our team.
“If it wasn’t for Coach, I would have never received a college scholarship, I wouldn’t have been included in our state championship team in 2012, and I wouldn’t be who I am today.”
To many outside the program, that may come as a surprise. Davidson could be seen at any meet constantly moving around a course barking out instructions to his runners. His workouts, which are a combination of systems used by legendary Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and legendary distance coach Jack Daniels, are meant to be as tough as possible – “more mileage and running faster while running that mileage,” Davidson said.
So when a former runner of his met up with someone from a rival school at a party years later, “I heard you all hated (Davidson)” was the rival’s comment.
“He said, ‘Are you kidding me? He’s one of my best friends,’” Davidson recalled with a laugh.
The hard work equaled results, and not just with runners like Habtewold, who entered with a ton of physical talent. Davidson had a track record of taking runners who were struggling to break 19 or even 20 minutes when they first came to him, and turning them into scoring runners on Regional – or even state – championship teams.
“The thing I stressed the most was running hard,” Davidson said. “It’s a training sport. I prided myself on taking below-average kids and making them great. Lars McElroy, his PR as a freshman was 19:05. He ran a 15:54 by the time he was a senior.”
There’s a large list of those runners from St. Clair, and Davidson can rattle off all of their PRs without a second of hesitation.
“I love them,” Davidson said. “I love them all. You put that much work into something, and how can you not remember? It’s not just something I did for fun – I did do it for fun – but it was what I poured my life into.”
One of those runners was Trevor Holowaty, who started running for Davidson as a sophomore in 2011 and had a personal best of 19:02 that year. He was a scorer on both of St. Clair’s Division 2 championship teams, coming in 11th at the Final in 2013, and finished his high school career with a personal-best time of 15:47. Recently, while running for Ferris State University, he qualified for the NCAA Division II National Championships.
“Jon taught me what hard work truly meant,” Holowaty said. “He was an extremely passionate coach, very emotional and thoughtful when it came to interacting with his athletes. He always had a plan and a drive to see us succeed that convinced us to trust that plan, and it always came together.
“His excitement to see us succeed through effort and hard work transferred over into the classroom and daily lives of myself and many others for years to come. He created a relationship closer to a friendship rather than a job with his athletes. I cannot imagine being coached and mentored by anyone else growing up.”
Even with his retirement, Davidson’s impact is sure to live on through all those he’s encountered.
“I feel like I’ve made my mark on the world,” Davidson said. “I left a great legacy, and still will, because I’m friends with most of those people who ran for me. That’s my greatest accomplishment right there. That tells me I’ve done a good job, because they still want to see me.”
Paul Costanzo served as a sportswriter at The Port Huron Times Herald from 2006-15, including three years as lead sportswriter, and prior to that as sports editor at the Hillsdale Daily News from 2005-06. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Genesee, Lapeer, St. Clair, Sanilac, Huron, Tuscola, Saginaw, Bay, Arenac, Midland and Gladwin counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Recently retired St. Clair boys cross country coach Jon Davidson runs ahead of one of his athletes during a meet. (Middle) Davidson poses with his 2013 MHSAA championship team. (Photos courtesy of Jon Davidson.)
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 Kelley Sweeney/Leader Publications. Middle photo by Scott Novak/Leader Publications.)