By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
A total of 992 boys cross country runners will join 961 girls at the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Cross Country Finals on Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.
No MHSAA tournament event includes that many athletes from so many communities at one time and in one place. But while the girls races feature a number of standouts from last season, the boys packs will all have new leaders.
All four individuals champions from 2011 graduated. Two of last season's team champions are favored to win again, but not by as much. It's easy to expect some shake-up at the top of all four divisions.
Below are some of the teams and individuals expected to emerge. Click for Saturday's race schedule and links to all qualifiers.
Reigning champion: Milford
2011 runner-up: Hartland
2012 top three: 1. Milford, 2. Romeo, 3. Saline
Milford looks good for its second straight title and fourth over the last decade led by two top-five placers from last season’s Final – junior and reigning runner-up Brian Kettle and senior Cody Snavely, who finished fifth. Milford placed six of the top 10 at a Regional that also included No. 7 Hartland and honorable mention Pinckney. Romeo comes to MIS this weekend with its top four from last season’s 15th-place team; they finished third-sixth at their Regional. Three of Saline’s top seven from its 2011 fourth-place finisher are back, and posting five of the top 14 allowed it to win a Regional that also included No. 8 Ann Arbor Pioneer.
Individuals: Kettle finished only three seconds behind White Lake Lakeland’s Garret Zuk (now at Michigan State) last season, and Lake Orion senior T.J. Carey should be in the mix again after taking fourth at the 2011 Final and winning his Regional in 15:18. But watch out for Waterford Mott senior Nathan Burnand, the winner at this season’s MSU Spartan Invitational and the sixth-place finisher at the 2011 Final.
Reigning champion: Mason
2011 runner-up: St. Joseph
2012 top three: 1. St. Clair, 2. St. Joseph, 3. Grand Rapids Christian
St. Clair took four of the top five and six of the top 10 spots at its Regional, led by winner and senior Brennan Shafer and freshman runner-up Buddy Brosky. They’re joined by three of the top five from last season’s seventh-place Final team. St. Joseph brings back four of its top six after finishing second at last season’s Final, and senior David Berry won his Regional as the Bears placed five among the top nine. Grand Rapids Christian took fifth last season with a senior-dominated group, but led by now-senior Wuoi Mach’s 14th-place finish. He paced five Eagles among the top 15 at their Regional. Reigning MHSAA champion Mason is ranked only No. 6, but returns fourth-place Tanner Hinkle, sixth-place Alex Whitmer and 25-place Mason VanDyke from last season’s title-winning team.
Individuals: After the top two, the next eight placers last season were juniors. Cedar Springs’ Connor Mora took third, and after two MHSAA track championships in the spring looks like the favorite to add one in cross country after winning his Regional in 14:54. But Big Rapids senior Clark Ruiz was runner-up in that Regional at 15:16.5, and Hinkle won his Regional in 15:30.9.
Reigning champion: Grandville Calvin Christian
2011 runner-up: Lansing Catholic
2012 top three: 1. Marlette, 2. Grandville Calvin Christian, 3. Benzie Central
Marlette finished 11th last season without a senior, and four of the top six from that race are back this weekend, led by senior and seventh-place finisher Jacob Bowman. Grandville Calvin Christian won its second-straight Final last season by placing four among the top 10, and only fifth-place Zac Nowicki is back from that group – although total, Calvin Christian has four of its top seven from that team returning, and the team took seven of the top 21 spots in dominating its Regional. Benzie Central, the 2009 champion, finished fourth last season with two seniors at the top but returns the next three from last season’s top five.
Individuals: Nowicki won his Regional last week and should among those at the front. The favorites likely are Mason County Central junior Chase Barnett, last season’s runner-up and winner of his Regional in 15:24.7, and Erie Mason senior Nick Raymond. He finished fourth at last season’s Final and won his Regional in 15:15.
Reigning champion: Concord
2011 runner-up: Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart
2012 top three: 1. Concord, 2. Pewamo-Westphalia, 3. Saugatuck
Concord won last season’s championship on the shoulders of individual champ Spencer Nousain, but he was the lone senior and four of that top seven lead this top-ranked team. The Yellow Jackets took five of the top 10 at a Regional that also included No. 10 Mendon. Pewamo-Westphalia finished eighth in Division 3 last season and brings the top six from that team into Division 4 this weekend after claiming six of the top 19 spots at a Regional that included No. 4 Breckenridge and No. 8 Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart. Saugatuck’s 11th-place finish last season came without a senior, and four of the top six are back led by last season’s individual runner-up, now-senior Sean Kelly.
Individuals: Kelly finished five seconds off Nousain last season, but finished only second at his Regional to Fremont Providence Christian senior Nick VanderKooi – who ran a 15:49 last weekend. Evart senior David Zinger took third in that same Regional after also taking third at last season’s Final. VanderKooi took 11th last fall.
PHOTO: Lake Orion's T.J. Carey (98), Grand Rapids Kenowa Hills' Jeff Bajema (215) and Milford's Cody Snavely (89) run near the front during last season's Division 1 Final at Michigan International Speedway. All three finished among the top eight and will be back this weekend. (Click to see more from HighSchoolSportsScene.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 Kelley Sweeney/Leader Publications. Middle photo by Scott Novak/Leader Publications.)