Bloomfield Hills junior – Tennis
Zhang moved up to No. 1 singles this season after claiming the No. 2 championship at last season’s Lower Peninsula Division 1 Finals, and he hasn’t missed a beat. The Black Hawks’ top player won his Regional last week, defeating Clarkston standout Luke Baylis 6-0, 6-4, in the No. 1 championship match to earn the Michigan Army National Guard “Performance of the Week.” He has only one loss this fall as he enters this weekend’s Finals the second seed in his flight.
In addition to Zhang’s win at No. 2 singles last year, he also finished runner-up at that flight as a freshman in 2015 in helping Bloomfield Hills to a shared team championship. The Black Hawks finished runner-up last season, two points behind winner Ann Arbor Huron, but entered this postseason as the top-ranked team in the state coaches association poll. Zhang’s lone defeat this fall came to Troy’s Steve Forman, the reigning LPD1 champion at No. 1 singles and the top seed in their bracket this weekend at the Midland Tennis Center. Zhang also had faced Baylis (this weekend’s fourth seed at No. 1) in last season’s Finals championship match and two more times earlier this fall before last week’s Regional.
Zhang is a highly-regarded college prospect nationally and could’ve chosen to not play high school tennis – but noted that he “loves the team aspect of it; our team is so fun, we do all of these outside activities and tennis is just a great time to have a bunch of teammates outside supporting you.” He’s not sure where he’ll continue after high school, but he also carries a 3.95 grade-point average and is considering studying something in the medical fields or business when that time comes – after working for another championship this weekend and playing another season of high school tennis in 2018.
Performance Point: “It was just a great match overall,” Zhang said of facing Baylis at the Regional. “I thought at the beginning I played a little more solidly than he did. It was 3-0 in the first set and it started to sprinkle a little, and it got a little dark outside so we moved it indoors. I thought Luke’s game overall suits indoor better than being outdoors, and the match was way more competitive after the first set. I was actually pretty worried because last year during leagues, it rained that day, and we had to move indoors and it was my only loss (of last season).”
Game changer: “I’m really trying to work on my aggressive game and making my serves a lot bigger than normal. A problem last year was that a lot of people were attacking my serve, so I’ve been trying to add speed to it, add consistency to it. Overall my defensive game has been one of my strongest parts, my counter punching, so my coach and I are trying to play a more aggressive game. In a way I like both – even though playing defensive tennis and counter punching tennis is more exhausting than playing offense, I feel more confident right now playing defense. The offset is offensive tennis gets a lot more free points and you’re not as tired at the end of a match. So in the long run I’m going to keep on trying to build my aggressive tennis game, so hopefully in future tournaments that go longer, a week long, I’ll have more energy as I progress through the tournament.”
Familiar faces: “I definitely think rivalries form (from seeing the same players during high school and USTA seasons). Everyone’s very competitive. Everyone is trying to be the best out there. Usually the top people in the Midwest play in the top Midwest tournaments, play in the Midwest finals, and everyone is trying to be the best they can. I do look forward to (seeing those players in high school). It gives me a great time to work on my shots and be competitive, and to play a guy like Forman again – I just had a loss to him, and it gives me motivation.”
Solving the puzzle: “I just love this sport. I just really enjoy that it’s just you on the court. There’s no coaching in between. It’s just you versus your opponent. You have to figure out ways to dissect your opponent’s game, figure out how to beat him.”
Rafa Respect: “I really love Rafael Nadal. I love how he puts 110 percent into every single match. And he never has a bad temperament. He’s pumped to play the game, but he’s one of the few people that hasn’t broken a racket yet. I think he respects the game a lot. He’s just a great person on and off the court.”
- Geoff Kimmerly, Second Half editor
Every week during the 2017-18 school year, Second Half and the Michigan Army National Guard will recognize a “Performance of the Week" from among the MHSAA's 750 member high schools.
The Michigan Army National Guard provides trained and ready forces in support of the National Military Strategy, and responds as needed to state, local, and regional emergencies to ensure peace, order, and public safety. The Guard adds value to our communities through continuous interaction. National Guard soldiers are part of the local community. Guardsmen typically train one weekend per month and two weeks in the summer. This training maintains readiness when needed, be it either to defend our nation's freedom or protect lives and property of Michigan citizens during a local natural disaster.
Previous 2017-18 honorees:
October 12: Nolan Fugate, Grand Rapids Catholic Central football - Read
October 5: Marissa Ackerman, Munising tennis - Read
September 28: Minh Le, Portage Central soccer - Read
September 21: Olivia Theis, Lansing Catholic cross country - Read
September 14: Maddy Chinn, Pontiac Notre Dame Prep volleyball - Read
PHOTOS: (Top) Bloomfield Hills' Andrew Zhang returns a volley during last season's LPD1 Finals championship match at No. 2 singles. (Middle) Zhang celebrates his first MHSAA title. (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.)