By Dennis Chase
Special for Second Half
TRAVERSE CITY – When the Traverse City Central boys cross country team opened practice last Wednesday, the gregarious John Lober was nowhere in sight.
Instead, the Michigan Interscholastic Track Coaches Association Hall of Fame coach was teeing it up on a golf course in Kalkaska County.
Lober, the driving force behind Traverse City Central boys running, stepped down as cross country coach after 28 years. He’ll continue as the track & field coach in the spring - his 49th year at Central and 54th season of coaching overall.
“I’m definitely going to miss it, but I’m lucky to say that a lot of these kids (in cross country) run track so I’ll still have an association with them,” Lober said. “It’s always about the kids and that association.”
Bryan Burns, who coached the Maple City Glen Lake girls to the Lower Peninsula Division 4 cross country title in 2000, is succeeding Lober.
“He’s a legend,” Central athletic director/assistant principal Mark Mattson said of Lober. “The guy’s put nearly 50 years into his craft at our school. That’s unprecedented. Fortunately, we get to keep him for track.”
Lober turned 75 in March.
“He’s 75 going on 35,” Mattson added. “He has such energy and passion. He’s everywhere - all the time.”
Still, Lober thought the time was right to make a change.
“I think it was my daughter who said something about me being in the fourth quarter,” he recalled. “Well, the greatest things happen in the fourth quarter. That’s when everything is on the line. Subconsciously, I’m thinking, ‘What are you going to do in the fourth quarter? How is this going to play out?’”
Lober experienced a taste of life without cross country last season – albeit for just two weeks – when he and his partner of 11 years, Margo Million, took a September vacation to New England.
And, as for any withdrawal symptoms in the last month, Lober’s been too busy for that to happen. He took in eight Traverse City Film Festival movies in late July and then the following week played 18 holes of golf four consecutive days with his visiting grandson and a friend.
“It’s been pretty Lober silent around (school), and I know that’s by John’s choice to stay out of the way and let Bryan Burns and his staff have that program be theirs,” Mattson said. “I’m sure that’s not easy for John because I know how much he cares for kids and how much pride he takes in our school and community. He paved the way for so many years. Nonetheless, he has the utmost respect for Bryan, who he helped put in place, and for what they want to do with the program going forward.”
Lober, and coaching companion Don Lukens, took over the Central cross country program in 1989 and turned it into one of the state’s best. According to statistics compiled by michtrack.org, Central had the fourth best program in the state in the 1990s – based on MHSAA Finals finishes – despite the fact the school was split (with West opening) in 1997. The Trojans were 12th from 2000-2009 and 11th from 2010-2016.
“Excellence is typified by a high achievement level over many years,” Lober said, “and I feel we’ve been an excellent program over the last 28 years.
“The system we established that first year (based on principles popularized by notable New Zealand runner and coach Arthur Lydiard) has proven to be a successful system. Little did Don and I know when we started working together that our talents would dovetail and create such a strong situation.”
Since 1989, Central has won 86 invitationals, eight Big North Conference titles and eight Regionals. The Trojans were runners-up in nine Regionals. Central finished second in Class A in 1996, five points behind White Lake Lakeland.
Central qualified for the MHSAA Finals the first 16 years under Lober and Lukens. That streak was snapped in 2005, but it led to one of the most satisfying seasons in 2006.
“Those kids on the 2005 team were the first not to go to states, and they banded together and came back and took third (in Division 1) the next year,” Lober said. “They were awesome. That was a special team.”
The Finals runner-up team in 1996 was special, too. In fact, Lober is reminded of it every day. That squad, after its successful season, planted a tree in Lober’s front yard. Today, it towers over the front of his property.
Lukens, also in the MITCA Hall of Fame, built his legacy as a cross country and track coach at Kalamazoo Loy Norrix before retiring at 55 and moving north. He had 32 years of service in, but his move was hastened after he accidentally “chemically poisoned” himself.
“I was staining my place and I dumped the bucket all over the front of me,” he said. “But I wanted to finish because I had company coming from Pennsylvania. The next day my knees and elbows were so swollen – you talk about pain.”
Lukens originally was told he had lupus, but a trip to the Mayo Clinic revealed it was chemical poisoning.
He was told his condition would improve as time passed, but it would be advantageous if he could retire.
“They said, ‘Remember, stress is a factor. If you don’t retire, don’t plan much until after age 60,’” Lukens recalled. “Well, that scared the dickens out of me.”
Lukens, now 83, was serving as interim athletic director at the time. In the meantime, he and his wife had fallen in love with northern Michigan and purchased property along the Platte River in Benzie County. Lukens started building their house right before the move.
“Every morning I get up, sit on the porch and look at the river,” he said. “You talk about being blessed.”
His coaching days were not over, however. Benzie Central track coach Pete Moss asked if Lukens could work with the team’s pole vaulter in that spring of 1989. In late May, at the Traverse City Record-Eagle Honor Roll track meet, Lober approached Lukens about becoming his distance coach in track. When the cross country job opened, Lober and Lukens took on that responsibility as well.
It’s a union that still exists. Lukens is assisting Burns in cross country and Lober in track.
“I think my wife is happy I’m not in her hair all the time,” Lukens said. “I enjoy working with the kids. They keep me young.”
Lober, whose track team won the Class A title in 1992, feels the same. He retired from teaching during spring break in 2000 when his wife Julie’s cancer returned. She passed in August of that year. It was in those moments afterwards, seeing the support he had from his teams, that it hit him.
“I need them more than they need me,” he said.
Now that he’s not a part of the cross country program, Lober said he’ll miss the dynamics of team building and team bonding. He’ll miss watching raw athletes develop skills they didn’t realize they had. But he won’t be out of sight totally. He’ll be there for meets, just like he’s at other school sporting events during the year. After all, Traverse City Central has been his home away from home for 49 years.
“When we named Travis Schuba our new boys basketball coach last week, John was the first one looking for contact information to congratulate him and welcome him to our staff,” Mattson said. “That’s John Lober. Traverse City Central is family for John.”
And just how long will he coach track?
“I want to coach track a couple more years because I love it,” he said. “Last year was as much fun as I’ve ever had coaching track. Plus, I want to put 50 (years) in. If I’m lucky enough to do that, I’d love it.”
Dennis Chase worked 32 years as a sportswriter at the Traverse City Record-Eagle, including as sports editor from 2000-14. He can be reached at [email protected] with story ideas for Manistee, Wexford, Missaukee, Roscommon, Ogemaw, Iosco, Alcona, Oscoda, Crawford, Kalkaska, Grand Traverse, Benzie, Leelanau, Antrim, Otsego, Montmorency, Alpena, Presque Isle, Cheboygan, Charlevoix and Emmet counties.
PHOTOS: (Top) Traverse City Central coach John Lober offers direction at a meet during his half-century career. (Middle) Central assistant Don Lukens, left, with Lober. (Photos courtesy of John Lober.)
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.)