KALAMAZOO — When he was 5 years old, Daniel Henry lost his father to brain cancer.
At age 14, he lost his mother to breast cancer.
Grieving his losses and living with his 23-year-old sister, Henry found solace in friends and high school tennis.
After skipping fourth grade, Henry was a young sophomore at Kalamazoo Central when his mother died.
“It was very difficult,” said Henry, now 21. “She’s the one who structured my day. It was my mom that planned out my activities because on the Northside (area of Kalamazoo), it’s very easy to get very distracted and do the wrong things.
“She definitely made sure that I followed the right type of people, people who were doing the right kinds of things for me. After that, it was, ‘Now what do I do?’”
Tennis indeed played a prominent role, engaging him at Central, pointing him toward the next step after graduation and bringing him back after college to share what he's learned.
Continuing a legacy
Tennis continues to give Henry a connection with his mother, Gina Rickman, who was a tennis pro at the YMCA of Greater Kalamazoo.
Continuing her legacy, he is a first-year coach of Kalamazoo Loy Norrix’s boys tennis team – quite a leap for a guy who played high school tennis at crosstown rival Kalamazoo Central.
“I hope no one from Central sees this,” Henry said, laughing. “I actually really do like it.
“Whatever I thought of Norrix my whole time being at the rival school, it’s kind of nice now that I don’t have to have any ill will toward my rival school. My mom went (to Norrix) as well. It’s just kind of poetic.”
Graduating from Kalamazoo College this year with a degree in computer science, Henry is taking a break from his job as a legal intern at Ven Johnson Law to coach.
Portage Central tennis coach Peter Militzer worked with Rickman and has known Henry most of his life.
“Gina had a heart of gold. She did more for the game of tennis with underprivileged youth than anyone I know,” Militzer said. “She instilled that same sense of giving back to your community in both Daniel and (sister) Brittany.”
Brittany Johnson took charge of Henry when their mother died, since his uncle lived in Chicago and his beloved grandmother, June Cotton, was in a nursing home.
“Looking back, I expected her to take on the role of my mother and was disappointed at times when I feel like she didn’t quite live up to that,” Henry said of his sister.
“But now that I’m nearing 22, I couldn’t imagine having the responsibility of taking care of anyone.”
Without his mother’s guidance, “It was very hard for me to find something to do constructively other than tennis.
”I’m just really happy I didn’t fall into some bad habits. It could have made it much harder to get here, if not impossible.”
Henry started playing tennis at age 7, but when a coach tried to change his grip by taping his hand to the racket, he said he gave it up.
“When I got to high school, I was like, ‘OK. I played this before. I’m not really good at it right now, but I can meet some friends and play a sport in high school,’” Henry said, “because I wasn’t sure if I was going to make the basketball team.”
Militzer said that at K-Central, Daniel was almost a coach to his teammates.
“He had few players on his team who could even rally with him, but it never seemed to get him down,” he said.
“In watching his team interact, you could see how important he was to the group.”
Keeping a Kalamazoo Promise
The Kalamazoo Promise was instrumental in Henry’s college choice.
The Promise is a fund provided by anonymous donors that will pay tuition to any Michigan college for students who graduate from Kalamazoo Public Schools.
“In kindergarten, they pound (the Promise) into our heads,” Henry said. “I didn’t really know what it meant at the time.”
By his sophomore year at Central, he understood and realized he had to keep his grades up if he wanted to attend college.
“I had a 4.0 before my mom passed away,” he said. “For me to just try to hold on and keep my grades, up I didn’t really need to study very much. But it started to show my senior year when I took AP classes.
“Part of it was I’m going to college because my grandma said so, and (I need to) keep my grades up so I can go to the best college I can go to.”
Henry said then-KPS superintendent Michael Rice – who became Michigan state superintendent of public instruction in 2019 – talked to Kalamazoo College men’s tennis coach Mark Riley about him.
“I’d been ignoring (Riley’s) emails because it was a Division III school,” Henry said. “Then I learned (Hornets tennis) was top 20 in the nation. I didn’t know much about college athletics.”
He chose Kalamazoo College, but said he was feeling burned out on school.
“Then Coach Riley said ‘No, you’re here to become a student. You’re here to learn.
“‘You’re here to get your degree and move on because tennis will only last four years, but the connections you make and things you learn will last the rest of your life.”
Norrix athletic director Andrew Laboe noted how the tennis team got a boost after football was postponed due to COVID-19 precautions earlier this year. At many schools, football players picked up other fall sports including tennis. “The telling part of that is three out of the four football players have stayed for the remainder of the season,” he said.
“Daniel is a big reason why they stayed. He has made tennis a fun experience for everyone.”
Laboe said Henry’s youth is a plus.
“He relates to the athletes well as he understands them at their level as he is young himself,” Laboe said. “They respect that he has played well at Kalamazoo College and that he is a product of Kalamazoo Public Schools and has been in our community his entire life.”
Riley said Henry is a “good listener, empathetic, caring, respectful and wants his (players) to love the sport like he does.
“He’s a proactive leader and has the ability to lead by example on the court. Daniel will thrive in life and any endeavor that he chooses.”
While Henry has his eye on attending law school in the near future, he is committed to teaching his Norrix players those same values.
“This is so fun, especially being in a team environment,” he said. “Looking at the relationship that I have with Coach Riley, he’s just hilarious and knows exactly what he’s talking about.
“If the player listens, he’s going to start winning. That’s just how it works. That’s how it worked throughout my career. The times I lost was because I wasn’t listening.”
Pam Shebest served as a sportswriter at the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1985-2009 after 11 years part-time with the Gazette while teaching French and English at White Pigeon High School. She can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Calhoun, Kalamazoo and Van Buren counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Kalamazoo Loy Norrix boys tennis coach Daniel Henry sends back a volley during a practice this fall. (2) Daniel Henry. (3) Daniel Henry and his mother Gina Rickman. (4) From left: Loy Norrix athletic director Andrew Laboe, Portage Central coach Peter Militzer, Kalamazoo College coach Mark Riley. (Action and top Henry photos by Pam Shebest. Henry and Rickman photo courtesy of Daniel Henry. Riley photo courtesy of Kalamazoo College.)
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.)