Runners Mourn St Louis Coach Mayer

January 12, 2016

By Dick Hoekstra
Reprinted from Gratiot County Herald

His former coach at St. Louis is one of the main reasons Dale Devine has been coaching cross country the past 25 years at Alma High School.

That coach, Jerry Mayer, passed away Dec. 8, at the age of 72 after battling Parkinson’s disease.

“Jerry and my friend Craig Higby got me interested in running,” Devine said. “One thing is Jerry always made it fun, although he also worked us very hard. Those times there was a lot of overtraining, but surprisingly none of us got injured. Maybe it’s because a lot of the kids ran around a lot more (than kids today).”

Higby was the individual MHSAA Finals champion on the Sharks’ 1979 team coached by Mayer, which edged Freeland 86-88 to win a Lower Peninsula Class C title at Clare.

Higby completed the three-mile course in 14:49, and was joined in the top 10 by three teammates. Armando Garza, who went on to run for Alma College, took fourth in 15:25; Paul Diaz, who later competed for Southwestern Michigan Community College, was sixth in 15:32; and Doug Border, whose son Brayden was an all-stater for the Sharks in 2007 and 2010, took 10th in 15:36.

But the Gratiot County Herald story that week said “the place that made the whole difference was Steve Crumbaugh in 65th with a time of 16:50. He gained several places near the end of the race which proved to be the winning margin over Freeland.”

Devine, who finished 83rd in 16:52, four places behind teammate Pete King in 16:51, said, “I remember personally I needed to do a lot of running the prior summer just battling to be in the top seven because we always did pretty well at the state level.”

Mayer was quoted as saying that the 1979 cross country MHSAA title was the first at St. Louis High since the boys basketball and track teams both earned one in 1953.

“I don’t remember a time, and there was never a course or a workout where I feel like we complained or made excuses about courses,” Devine said. “That had a lot to do with Jerry and his expectations. We did a lot of hills, especially at the old Edgewood Hills Golf Course in St. Louis (now Hidden Oaks Golf Course).”

When those expectations weren’t met, Mayer let his team know – sometimes by breaking clipboards.

“He was known for having a temper,” Devine said. “But he knew what potential his athletes had, and was frustrated when they decided to do things on their own instead of listening to his advice.”

Diaz still holds the 400, 800 and 1,600-meter records and Garza the 3,200 record listed on the track and field records board in the school’s gym. All were set during the 1980 season, a few months after the cross country championship.

Janell Best Vier still holds the 100, 200, 400 and 800 records in girls track and field for St. Louis and was part of an unofficial Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association state championship in 1978 won at Potterville. (The Michigan High School Athletic Association began crowning champions in 1979.)

“Coach Mayer had a way of inspiring us to reach higher and dig deeper,” she said. “Many times the goals he set for us were much higher than we would have set for ourselves. After a while, we believed we could do what he told us we could do. Winning was always the goal. He assumed that we could achieve this, so we thought that we could always come in first.

“He cared about us individually and we wanted to make him proud, and not disappoint him. So we exerted maximum effort. Really, that was all he would ask or expect.”

She said Mayer’s sense of humor was dry and constant.

“There was laughter throughout our practices, meetings and even at our meets,” Best Vier said. “We were trading jabs constantly.”

Kathy Hutfilz coached the St. Louis girls track and field team from 1973 until she became athletic director in the mid-1980s at the same time Mayer coached boys track as well as boys and girls cross country.

“Jerry worked as hard as the kids worked at getting ready to compete in meets,” she said. “He cut (results) out of the paper, and we talked about where our best chances were to get points in meets.”

Hutfilz coached the 1981 St. Louis girls to a Class C title.

“He had a phenomenal knowledge of the sports,” said Rudy Godefroidt, who coached Breckenridge to a Class C title in cross country in 1976. “He was always prepared, and made the rest of us coaches better.”

Mayer coached Godefroidt’s daughter, Lorenda, a four-time all-stater in track and field and three time all-stater in cross country.

“Jerry had the ability to bring athletes along to perform at that level,” Godefroidt said. “As a parent and co-coach, I always appreciated the way he treated athletes, brought them along and made sure they were prepared for their competition.”

Mayer taught eighth grade science classes at St. Louis for 30 years. He was voted the Michigan Coach of the Year for Class C Cross Country by MITCA after winning the 1979 title. After his retirement, he served as an assistant coach at Hemlock.

Devine says he tries to emulate in his coaching each year the light, fun and family atmosphere along with high expectations he experienced with Mayer.

Mayer was at Hemlock when Devine started as Alma’s coach.

“He told me after a while I could call him Jerry,” said Devine, who echoed Best Vier’s noting of Mayer’s humor. “One of the nicknames we had for him was Sunshine, although we didn’t tell him to his face. I had him for an eighth grade science teacher, and one of his famous statements was ‘it’s another beautiful day in the thriving metropolis of St. Louis’.”

Although serious in big track and field meets, if Mayer knew the opponent for a certain meet was weaker, he would allow middle distance and distance runners to try some different events – including sprints.

St. Louis was in the Mid-Michigan B league in the 1970s, and the boys and girls track teams often ran meets on separate days of the week. Once they joined the Central Michigan League in the early 1980s, they began competing in meets together as track teams do nearly all of the time today.

“The kids ran similar workouts, guys and girls, and they all got along really well,” Hutfilz said. “They were friends out in public and on the track. We were like a big family. The end-of-year awards were always a cookout at someone’s house, and we did that together.”

PHOTOS: The St. Louis boys cross country team, coached by Jerry Mayer, won the MHSAA's Lower Peninsula Class C championship in 1979. (Photos courtesy of Gratiot County Herald.)

Speedy & Skilled, Krueger Again Boosting Niles' Cross Country, Tennis Teams

By Scott Hassinger
Special for

October 3, 2023

NILES – On any autumn weekday afternoon, Aiden Krueger can be found using his legs to carry him across the campus of Niles High School.

Southwest CorridorAfter 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.

Krueger follows through on a forehand shot during a Wolverine Conference match earlier this season."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 HassingerScott 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.)