KALAMAZOO — Winning six of eight flights, Ann Arbor Greenhills took home the MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 team trophy Saturday at Kalamazoo College, the Gryphons’ first championship in three years but ninth over the last 11.
Greenhills clinched the title during the semifinals, but the real dogfight was for second place between Traverse City St. Francis and Allegan.
St. Francis won out with 26 points to Allegan’s 23, both behind Greenhills’ 38.
Ludington was fourth with 15 points, and fifth was a three-way tie between Ann Arbor Gabriel Richard, Grand Rapids Catholic Central and Grosse Ile with 13 points each.
“We were pretty deep and added a couple singles players to the top of the lineup,” Greenhills coach Eric Gajar said of his team’s success. “A guy who transferred and sat out last year at No. 1 (junior Sahil Deenadayalu) and a freshman (Mert Oral) who came in and played No. 3.
“We got to sort of bulk up the singles lineup, which meant we had some guys in the doubles lineup who were pretty good players as well.”
All six Greenhills winners were top seeds at their flights.
St. Francis coach Paul Bandrowski was thrilled with second place, the highest the team has ever placed.
“We’ve worked hard, and it took every single player to get there to make it work,” he said. “Every single player contributed at least one point from No. 4 doubles winning one match to the No. 3 doubles winning two points.
“We had a huge, huge two three-setters at No. 1 singles (in the quarters and semis) and won both of them. It took a battle at every position at every flight to fight through and win this.”
Gajar knew what to expect in the fight with Allegan, which switched divisions this fall.
“They were always a great Division 3 team, and they’re a great Division 4 team,” he said. “It took everything to beat them. We were fighting them all the way.
“We were head-to-head right to the end. Literally down to the last matches on the court at the state finals. The last hour on a rainy day inside at multiple locations.”
Allegan coach Gary Ellis was surprised to find his Tigers in D-4 for the first time ever.
“It was a shock, but a lot of good coaches and a lot of good teams,” he said. “We know Greenhills and St. Francis are as tough as anybody in D-3, and most of the teams in D-2.
“I knew it was going to be tough. I was very pleased with the way our guys played, too. We knocked off some seeds. We won some tough matches. We had five in the semis and three in the finals.”
Third is the highest Allegan’s boys team has ever finished.
At No. 1 singles, Grosse Pointe Woods University Liggett sophomore Will Cooksey breezed to a 6-0 first-set lead in the final before squeaking out the second set 7-6 with a 7-2 tiebreak over Deenadayalu to win the flight for the second straight season.
The only Liggett player still competing Saturday, Cooksey thanked the large contingent of players and parents for staying to cheer him on.
As reigning flight champ, “I felt a little pressure just knowing I had to repeat what I did, but it was a new opponent and I just want to congratulate Sahil on a great tournament,” Cooksey said. “He put up a great fight there at the end, and he worked really hard to get there.”
Deenadayalu knew he would have a tough match against his friend.
“Will’s just a great competitor, and he came out firing,” he said. “I didn’t really know what to do. I kind of eased into it in the second set.
“I started to step up more, hit bigger shots, and I started to go for a lot more on my serve. Then it started to work.”
A pair of Greenhills brothers, junior Kaan Oral and freshman Mert Oral, won at Nos. 2 and 3 singles.
Kaan Oral, who defeated St. Francis senior Elliott Bandrowski, 6-4, 6-1, went on court after his brother finished playing.
“I have to keep up the winning way,” he said. “I’ve played Elliott four times in two years and every time he comes out hitting those big shots. It was a great match. Kudos to him.”
Bandrowski, whose father coaches St. Francis, said he thought he played well in the first set.
“Actually I played pretty well throughout the entire thing,” he said. “(Oral) was able to figure out what I was doing a little bit and he was able to put some more balls in, and I started missing a bit more.
“I would say the biggest difference was him being able to put one more ball in than me.”
Mert Oral defeated St. Francis sophomore Charlie Schmude, 6-1, 6-0.
“I think that I’m really consistent and I’ve also been working on my serve, so I got a fair amount of free points,” Oral said. “Also, I think I was mentally strong on key points.”
Schmude credited his team with helping him get to the finals.
“I think my forehand is pretty big, but I wouldn’t have gotten here without my team playing good,” he said. “Last year I got third in 3 doubles. I’ve been playing singles all my life through USTA, so I like singles.”
Greenhills senior Taha Zirapury defeated St. Francis freshman Cody Richards, 6-2, 6-3, at No. 4 singles.
“We’ve worked really hard this season, and to end it on a high note like this is amazing, especially senior year,” Zirapury said. “To really end your tennis career with a state title is really special.”
Zirapury figured playing a freshman would not be an easy task.
“I’ve seen some really good freshmen,” he said. “Our No. 3 singles is an amazing freshman. Going into it, I knew he was going to be a great tennis player, and I was up for the challenge.”
Richards won five games from Zirapury, who lost only four games total in the previous three matches.
“I learned that in every match you have a chance to win no matter who you go against,” he said.
While Greenhills’ No. 2 doubles semifinal match was the tournament clincher, the duo lost in the final to St. Francis top seeds Sean Navin and Brandon Chouinard in a nail-biter, 6-3, 2-6, 7-6(5).
Second seeds Drake Rosenberg and Joey Formicola did not know their semis win was the clincher.
The doubles semis were moved indoors to Minges Creek Athletic Club in Battle Creek before the finals were played at K-College’s Markin Raquet Center.
Moving inside was a plus for Rosenberg and Formicola, who were surprised at winning the crucial point.
“I’m not a fan favorite of the wind,” Formicola said. “My forehand’s very good indoors, and my serve is pretty big, and it’s a huge plus to our game to be inside.”
Navin and Chouinard were the only St. Francis individual title winners.
They were tucked back on Court 4 at the Markin Center, the farthest from the bleachers.
“The crowd was crazy,” Navin said. “I could hear two or three people after every single point. It was great to know they were behind us.”
Chouinard said one of the team’s goals was to finish first or second at the Finals “but we knew first was going to be hard because Greenhills is such a great team.”
At No. 1 doubles, Greenhills’ Trey Feldeisen and Henry Branch defeated third seeds Zach Sisson and Zach Lang of Allegan, 6-4, 6-1.
No. 3 doubles winners were Greenhills’ Nathan Rosenberg and Finn Feldeisen over Allegan second seeds Owen Clearwater and Walker Michaels, 6-2, 6-2.
At No. 4 doubles, Greenhills’ Harrison Li and Alex Schwendeman defeated Allegan second seeds Vance Muenzer and Ben Groth, 6-4, 6-0.
PHOTOS: (Top) Greenhills' Mert Oral sends a backhand during No. 3 singles action action at the Division 4 Final at Kalamazoo College. (Middle) University Liggett's Will Cooksey makes his way to a repeat title at No. 1 singles Saturday. (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.)