By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
Runners-up from 2014 are poised to make moves at Saturday’s MHSAA Boys Cross Country Finals at Michigan International Speedway.
An individual runner-up from a year ago also will run this weekend to move up one more spot.
Below are some of the teams and individuals to keep an eye on in all four divisions, and click for a full list of qualifiers for each and information on Saturday’s event – which this fall includes 988 boys.
Reigning champion: Rockford
2014 runner-up: White Lake Lakeland
2015 top-ranked: 1. Rockford, 2. Northville, 3. Novi.
Rockford edged Lakeland by a mere six points last season, but not surprisingly is the favorite again with four of the top five back from last season including fourth-place finisher Isaac Harding, now a senior. All seven Rams finished among the top 20 at last week’s Regional; sophomore Cole Johnson was runner-up to Harding and finished 16th at his first Final. Northville finished fourth last season with four seniors, but put all seven runners among the top 24 last week despite finishing second to Novi. The Wildcats were 15th at MIS a year ago led by then-junior Joost Plaetinck in 13th place; he finished first as all five Novi runners placed among the top 18 in that Regional win.
Individuals: Total, six of the top 15 from last season will run again this weekend. Finishing two seconds ahead of Harding in third place in 2014 was Traverse City Central now-senior Anthony Berry, who followed Harding and Johnson at the Regional where all three crossed within two seconds of each other. Salem senior Chaz Jeffress was ninth at the 2014 Final and finished only a tenth of a second behind Plaetinck at the Regional. Alpena junior Mitchell Day was 14th last season and won his Regional nine seconds ahead of Fenton senior Jacob Lee, another contender. East Lansing senior Jacob Stanton ran the fastest Regional time in the division, 15:27.4, and Rochester junior Kyle Johnson edged a strong Regional field that included Lake Orion senior Andrew Lorant, who finished 10th at the Final last year.
Reigning champion: Grand Rapids Christian
2014 runner-up: Fremont
2015 top-ranked: 1. Fremont, 2. Grand Rapids Christian, 3. Corunna.
Grand Rapids Christian and Fremont were opposites last season, Christian with five seniors and Fremont with five sophomores. Fremont would appear to have a leg up this time after placing four among the top seven at its Regional led by junior Matthew Zerfas, who won in 15:55.42 and finished fourth at last year’s Final. Junior Sam Kaastra, ninth last season, also is back. Junior Justin Varineau was the Eagles’ second-fastest runner at that Final, finished 13th overall, and won last week’s Regional with four more of his teammates placing among the top 11 (and none of the team's seven runners is a senior). Corunna should make a move from eighth last season after graduating only one of its top five and with fifth-place now-junior Noah Jacobs again leading the way. He paced five Cavaliers runners who finished among the top six at their Regional last week.
Individuals: The race for the individual title is loaded, led by reigning champion Morgan Beadlescomb, now a senior at Algonac. He won his Regional last week in 15:14, more than 16 seconds faster than his MHSAA championship time from 2014. Sturgis senior Daniel Steele finished only fifth at his Regional but was third last season at the Final; teammate Shawn Bell was 14th and finished two spots ahead of him at the Regional. Pontiac Notre Dame Prep senior Nathan Mylenek, seventh last season, was second at his Regional to teammate Brendan Fraser. St. Clair senior Jack Keais finished 33 seconds back of Beadlescomb at the Regional despite running a 15:47. A number of others ran Regionals in the 16:15-16:25 range, with Coldwater sophomore Shuaib Aljabaly notable finishing ahead of the Sturgis pair.
Reigning champion: Benzonia Benzie Central
2014 runner-up: Lansing Catholic
2015 top-ranked: 1. Lansing Catholic, Benzie Central, 3. Hanover-Horton.
The Cougars graduated the reigning individual champion and three of its top four finishers from last season’s runner-up effort, but is expected to take another step up after also running a sophomore and three freshmen in 2014. Junior Ethan Markey won their Regional last week and sophomore Ryan Schroeder was second, with another sophomore and two freshmen also finishing among the top 13. Two-time reigning champion Benzie Central had only one senior among its top six last season. Four of those top five will run this weekend led by junior Brayden Huddleston, ninth individually in 2014. Hanover-Horton is seeking its first top-two finish after finishing third last year with only one senior among its top five. The other four and a new starter finished among the top eight at their Regional.
Individuals: The top spot is open after graduated Lansing Catholic standout Keenan Rebera won the last two championships. Grandville Calvin Christian senior Abe Visser, Cass City senior Bransen Stimpfel and Grand Rapids West Catholic senior Bobby Haskin finished third, fourth and sixth in 2014, respectively. Visser won his Regional in 15:23.8 ahead of two others who broke 16 minutes, Holland Black River senior James McCann and Grant senior Jesse Saxton. Stimpfel won his Regional by two tenths of a second ahead of St. Louis junior Evan Goodell, who was 15th at the 2014 Final, and eight seconds ahead of Hemlock senior Ryan Hilbrandt, 12th last year. Also watch for Caro freshman Yami Albrecht, who broke 16 minutes at that Regional, and Shepherd senior Walker Priest, who won his Regional just ahead of Hesperia senior Arik LaFave, 11th at last season’s Final.
Reigning champion: Beal City
2014 runner-up: Saugatuck
2015 top-ranked: 1. Saugatuck, 2. Bear Lake, 3. Mendon.
Saugatuck finished second last season with five sophomores and a senior and comes back to MIS with five juniors, a sophomore and a freshman – with all seven having placed among the top nine at their Regional. Junior Zachary Pettinga was the top Finals finisher last year, at 15th, and he won the Regional title. Bear Lake placed five among the top 12 at its Regional after finishing third at the Final a year ago. Senior Jordan Anderson and sophomore Gary McBride finished 14th and 18th, respectively, last season, and second and first, respectively, last week. Mendon ran only one senior last year in finishing sixth and won its Regional with five among the top 11 and senior Dylan Plummer fastest coming in fourth. He also was fastest for the team at MIS in 2014, coming in 42nd as one of four who crossed among the top 75.
Individuals: In addition to Anderson and Pettinga, four more from last season’s top 10 are back led by Evart senior Santana Scott, the reigning runner-up. He won a Regional by 15 seconds that also included Beal City senior Ethan Schafer, seventh at last year’s Final. Sand Creek senior Aaron Peters, ninth last season, was a Regional champion this year, and Buckley sophomore Denver Cade will run again after coming in 12th in 2014. The Saugatuck runners paced the fastest Regional in the division, and Holton junior Jacob Tanner was runner-up in that group. Mount Pleasant Sacred Heart senior Logan Moyle finished between Scott and Schafer at their Regional, and Ubly sophomore Alex Grifka also was impressive breaking 17 minutes and winning his Regional by 32 seconds.
The MHSAA Cross Country Finals are sponsored by the Michigan National Guard.
PHOTO: St. Joseph’s Skyler Arthur (433), Cedar Springs’ Austin Sargent (463) and eventual champion Morgan Beadlescomb of Algonac (456) were fastest off the start in LPD2 in 2014; Beadlescomb returns this weekend. (Click for 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.)