KALAMAZOO — Behind his blistering serve, senior Garrett Goldman accomplished a tennis hat trick at the Lower Peninsula Division 3 championships, moved inside at Kalamazoo College’s Markin Racquet Center because of rain Saturday.
The East Grand Rapids senior won an MHSAA title at No. 1 singles, clinched second place for his team and kept Detroit Country Day from scoring a perfect 40 points.
Paul Ballard, tournament chairman, said this was an unusually competitive tournament.
“We had three teams with nearly perfect scores: Detroit Country Day up through the semifinals was perfect, East Grand Rapids and St. Joe were one point each from perfect,” he said. “It made for a very tight race up at the top.”
Goldman’s win gave EGR 27 points, one better than St. Joseph. Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood was fourth with 20 points.
With just three seniors on the championship team, coach Josh Molino said he’s excited for the future of Country Day tennis.
“Last year, we had a senior-loaded team that did a phenomenal job,” Molino said. “We were one set away from getting 40 (points). This season, it’s a different team: a lot of new guys, a lot of young guys.
“These guys play in the offseason. Each year we come back with a new set of goals of getting better each practice. I think that translates to getting better each match, and hopefully, we’re playing the best tennis come October toward the state tournament.”
The top-seeded Goldman, who defeated Country Day senior Rishi Patel, the third seed, 7-5, 6-4, knew his win would give his team sole possession of second place.
“I did know and that’s why I tried my best,” Goldman said. “I went out there expecting a tough match and I played my heart out and I got it done.
“I played him earlier in the season in a meet in EGR and won 6-2, 6-4. It did give me some confidence. I also beat (second seed Thomas Bellio, St. Joe); he played in the semis, so I went into this tournament pretty confident, expecting to win.”
Goldman took his first lead of the second set at 4-3.
“I sort of came to the realization that I needed to win and I needed to close it out,” he said. “I wasn’t about to let it go to a third set. I tried my hardest.”
Patel, who moved up from No. 3 singles last year, said he’s never faced a serve as hard as Goldman’s.
“He was probably serving above 110 mph and when it went in, it was hard to get back,” Patel said. “It was pretty hard to return indoors.
“It made a little bit of a difference (playing indoors) just because he hits a bigger ball than me. Outdoors, I can use the wind to my advantage and play more defense.”
Although Patel has two MHSAA titles at No. 3 singles, “This (third consecutive team championship) is more important, even though I lost, because I’m a senior.”
Molino credits Patel with the team’s success.
“He stepped up and really led this group of young guys,” the coach said. “We filled six or seven guys into the lineup and we worked hard all year. We had a goal of winning state again.”
EGR junior Grant Bailey gave Country Day sophomore Noah Karoub a battle at No. 2 singles with Karoub, the top seed, winning 7-5, 6-4, in one of the last matches on court.
“I liked being one of the last (on court),” Karoub said. “The (very loud) crowd is really important. It gives you confidence and makes you play better. I was grinding it out.”
Bailey said it was the second time this season he’s lost to Karoub. The first time was in a third-set tiebreak.
“Noah’s a great player,” Bailey said. “Congrats to him. I know he’s just going to scrap it out. I don’t think he missed a ball the whole match.
Bailey was playing on the court next to Goldman.
“I was watching Garrett’s match the whole time,” Bailey said. “I’m so happy for him. The team did fine. I’m really excited for us.”
Being one of the final matches, “I had the whole place watching,” an exuberant Bailey said after learning his team finished second. “Garrett just won, so we have the best player in the state. I’ve got the whole team cheering me on. It was a great experience.
“I love my team, what can I say. I’m really proud of our doubles. They were a big question mark coming in and they stepped up.”
EGR coach Mickey Mikesell had no idea his team finished second.
“I don’t follow that stuff,” he said. “I get out here in the trenches and watch the matches. I don’t really sit back there and count too much because I’d rather stay focused on these guys.
“Garrett is a personal student of mine at MVP, Grand Rapids, so it’s a pretty special day for me as his high school coach and his personal coach.”
Mikesell said his team is designed for tournament play.
“For example, we played Cranbrook earlier and lost three matches to five,” he said. “We played St. Joseph earlier and lost two matches to six.
“We’re all good teams, but from top to bottom, we have a lot of depth. And when you go to tournament play, you can have success that way.”
At No. 3 singles, second-seeded Jakob Gahn, a Country Day sophomore, defeated St. Joseph’s top seed, Kenny Garstecki, 7-6(4), 6-1.
“(Gahn) could pull off the winning shot,” Garstecki, a senior, said. “Other players couldn’t hit that winning shot. It’s just inches that separate wins from losses. In the first set, it was a tiebreaker, so it was pretty tight. He just played a little bit better in that tiebreaker.”
Brendan Childress and Andrew Joslyn, the top seeds on Country Day’s No. 4 doubles team, defeated second seeds Steven Meng and Alex Hubers, Cranbrook-Kingswood, 6-4, 6-3, to clinch the team title, even though they were the first finals match to finish.
Gahn said knowing the team already clinched didn’t make a difference in the way he played.
“Both things are important: the team victory and the individual victory,” he said. “I feel good that we won as a team and I feel good that I won as an individual.
“(Garstecki) played some great tennis. I feel like I was more consistent and more aggressive in the second. I came to the net more. In the first set, I was too passive and let him dictate the point, which he did remarkably well, as I learned.”
A pair of freshmen battled it out at No. 4 singles with top-seeded Davis Wong, Country Day, defeating No. 2 Ahmeir Kyle, St. Joseph, 6-0, 6-4.
Wong said he knew a week before that he could be facing a girl in the final.
“I know she’s a good player,” he said. “I looked up her records and she has really good statistics. I knew coming in, it would be a hard match whoever I played in the finals.
“In the second set, her game rose a lot and we had a battle. She played really well. She changed up her tactics and I just had to adapt to them.”
Garstecki said Kyle is a good addition to the team.
“She’s really good,” he said. “It’s good to play against her (in practice). She hits the ball really hard.”
Said St. Joe coach Pat Hoffman: “Ahmeir has played in our summer program for years and has been on USTA teams, so she seemed to be a natural fit.”
Kyle didn’t lose a set until the finals.
“I was giving away points in the first set,” she said. “In the second set I started serving and volleying more and I was a little more consistent.”
PHOTOS: Detroit Country Day doubles player Blake Burstein (left), coach Josh Molino (center) and No. 1 singles player Rishi Patel pose with their Division 3 championship trophy. (Photo courtesy of Detroit Country Day boys tennis.)
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.)