ISHPEMING – On its home courts, the host Westwood boys tennis team claimed the Upper Peninsula Division 2 title by winning four flights and making the finals in all eight Thursday afternoon.
Westwood won the tournament going away with 20 points, while second place Munising’s 12 and third place Iron Mountain’s 10 provided the most turbulence. The Mustangs and Mountaineers both had two winners and four finalists. West Iron County came in fourth with six points, Ishpeming had three and Gwinn rounded out the six teams with one point.
Westwood had last won the Finals title in 2019 and finished runner-up to West Iron last season.
“We were lucky that we had everybody in the finals, which is half of the battle at UPs – getting there,” Westwood coach Sarah Massie said. “We’re happy to see everybody be able to make it there even though we weren’t necessarily favored once we were in the finals in all of the spots. Everybody played hard today, and there were some close matches that we had to get through.”
The Patriots scored victories in No. 3 and No. 4 singles, along with No. 3 and No. 4 doubles. In one of the knockout, drag-out matches that Massie referenced, Patrick Klumpp had to survive his semifinal before advancing and winning the No. 3 singles flight. Klumpp defeated Ethan Isaacson of West Iron County with the help of a tiebreaker in the second set before cruising for the title in a 6-0, 6-1 win over Munising’s Cole Whitehead.
“It’s been a rough season here and there, but today I felt great,” Klumpp said. “I love this sport, it’s fun, there’s always good competition, and it’s fun to be a part of a team.”
Westwood’s other singles winner Mason Hietikko had a bit of a different path on the way to his No. 4 singles victory. After starting the season at doubles and struggling, he made the move to singles and didn’t look back. In the final, Hietikko scooted past Iron Mountain’s Reece Kangas for the 6-1, 6-2 win.
“I think it’s amazing,” Hietikko said. “Coming out here and winning my flight is an amazing feeling. Being consistent, and not making stupid mistakes and getting in my head, was a perfect way to win.”
John Thomsen and Nick Salzwedel pulled out the No. 3 doubles win for Westwood after knocking off Munising’s Danny Goss and Aidan Gumz in the only three-set finals match 6-3, 3-6, 6-4. Rounding out the Patriots’ four victories, Jayce Patron and Mitchell Ford defeated Iron Mountain’s Dylan Kingren and Carter Kassin in No. 4 doubles 6-4, 7-5.
Westwood won both girls and boys tennis titles this school year, dating back to the girls’ Division 1 victory in September. The success of the program as of late hasn’t gone unnoticed, and it’s furthermore setting things up for the Patriots in the future.
“It’s fun to see, and it’s good for our community, and just tennis as a whole for the girls and boys to see success,” Massie said. “We just started a middle school program, so for those kids to see the high schoolers and the kids that they look up to, is just good for our tennis program and for the game of tennis.”
Munising galloped to win the other two doubles flights on the way to their second-place finish. The No. 1 doubles team for the Mustangs of Alex Vandzandt and Lucas Westcomb defeated Westwood’s Ryan LaFountain and Chase Prophet 6-2, 6-3. The pair are good friends and graduating together this year, and also won a U.P. Finals championship after not having a team for the past two seasons.
“It feels great honestly just coming out here after two years of not playing. Becoming U.P. champions is a great feeling,” Vandzandt said. “We had to search and search for a coach. Abbie Hayes came out. She’s only 20 years old, she’s still going to college, she worked hard to get to all of our practices. I’m glad we could be here, and I’m glad that a couple of our teammates could be U.P. champions.”
Munising’s No. 2 doubles team of Jesse Duran and Carson Kienitz also prevailed with a tight 6-4, 7-5 win over Westwood’s Gabe Tossava and Zak Senske. With a new core of players on the team, especially for those seniors who haven’t played in two years, the Mustangs did more than show up at U.P. Finals.
“It was very nerve-racking, but we tried to keep our cool, and keep the ball in,” Westcomb said. “We just had to get back in our groove and get back those skills from our freshman year, and get the hang of everything.”
Iron Mountain also produced a pair of winners atop of the singles flights. David Juul ended his strong season with a 6-0, 6-3 victory over Westwood’s Andrew Niemi in the No. 1 singles finale. The senior’s search for that elusive U.P. championship came to a close after falling short in his previous tries.
“I thought my backhand was on; I had a lot of kill shots with my backhand,” Juul said. “My first serve was going in a lot, so I was very happy. It feels good to get the win. Andrew (Niemi) played really well, and it was a fun match to play in.”
Brenden LaPoint was victorious at No. 2 singles for the Mountaineers with a 6-0, 6-3 win over Westwood’s Bryce Markham. LaPoint had been out most of the season with a foot injury, and he doubted that he would be able to play at all this season. With the injury still nagging him in recent weeks before getting fully healed a week ago, LaPoint’s win wasn’t as ordinary as others.
“I really wasn’t sure if I was going to make it to UPs this season with my foot injury,” LaPoint said. “It was good to be able to get back for UPs and take home the championship.”
PHOTOS (Top) Ishpeming Westwood's Bryce Markham returns a volley during a No. 2 singles match Thursday. (Middle) Iron Mountain's David Juul sends a shot at No. 1 singles on the way to winning his flight. (Photos by Travis Nelson.)
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.)