Nervousness is part of Spencer Nousain's pre-race preparation.
“I’m scared I’m going to lose,” he said earlier this week, just days before his final high school cross country race -- Saturday's MHSAA Lower Peninsula Division 4 Final at Michigan International Speedway.
And it seems a little odd, considering his resume.
The Concord senior has never finished lower than 10th at an MHSAA Finals. So far this fall, he's placed first in every race but one – Michigan State’s Spartan Invitational, where he was seventh in the “Elite” race against many of the state’s best from all divisions.
But if Nousain is first to cross the finish line for the Division 4 Final, he won’t celebrate right away. Instead, he’ll turn around and wait.
There’s definitely a pressure in having one last chance to win an MHSAA title. But Nousain has poured that into his team, which he is focused on leading to its second team championship in three seasons.
“I think the team relaxes me. If I focus on helping my teammates, that takes the pressure off of me,” Nousain said. “That’s the one thing I have changed. I’m a little more concerned about team this year.”
The Yellow Jackets have followed their leader to a spotless team record so far, including a Regional win without him. Concord is ranked No. 1 in Division 4 by MichiganCrossCountry.com’s coaches panel.
Nousain is fresh off his second-straight championship at the Jensen Memorial meet, which pits all of the Jackson-area cross country teams. He crushed the field in 16:05.7, 35 seconds faster than the runner-up. It's been that kind of fall, coming off last year’s state final when Nousain ran a 15:51.7.
Leading and following is nothing new for him. He’s the seventh of nine children in a running family. All but one of the first six ran high school cross country, and three of his siblings have gone on to run at the college level.
Unintentionally, Nousain’s sitting out the Regional allowed younger brother Mason, a sophomore, to place as Concord’s fifth runner that day. Mason has been the recipient of some of Spencer’s best lessons.
Starting in seventh grade, Nousain began training hard during the winter even as some of Concord’s high school runners were a little less serious, Yellow Jackets coach David Jordon said. Nousain has imparted that work ethic on his younger brother, and also become a target for some of the team’s younger runners to chase during practices.
“He wants to go out and run a great race, and everybody would love to win. But more of his focus is on how his teammates do,” Jordon said. “He’s definitely matured and seen the bigger picture. It’s exciting to win, but when the team wins, it’s more exciting.”
That might add some of the anxiety Nousain feels of late. Family, friends and others in the community expect him to lead Concord to another MHSAA team championship. But when Saturday’s starting gun goes off, he’ll only be able to control his race – and use the lessons he learned himself during the two near-misses.
The first time Nousain took second at an MHSAA Final, he was excited. The only runner to cross the finish line ahead of him was teammate Kyle Stacks, and their Concord team had just won the 2009 overall championship.
The second time Nousain finished second – a year ago this weekend – Nousain was a little disappointed. He’d expected to be first. He didn’t feel like he improved at all.
On Saturday, he has one more chance. And only one way to get better individually, although he’ll still celebrate coming in second if his team comes in first. He’ll race as he has all fall – start smart, close hard in the last mile, and then watch for more purple coming soon after.
“It’s going to be amazing. I love watching not just Mason, but my teammates improve,” Spencer said.
“In the sense of watching them be happy, when we win as a team, I’ll be happy. It makes me proud to say I helped them.”
One race, two champions, more contenders
The most competitive of Saturday’s races could be the Division 2 girls final. The field includes reigning individual champion Rachele Schulist of Zeeland West, last season’s third place finisher Megan O’Neil of Remus Chippewa Hills and fourth-place Julia Bos of Grand Rapids Christian.
Also in Division 2 this time is Allendale and Ali Wiersma, last season’s Division 3 MHSAA champion. Bos (17:43.2), Wiersma (17:59) and Schulist (18:19) were the top three, respectively, at last Saturday’s Regional at Allendale.
O’Neil (18:03.55) was third at the Benzie Central Regional behind two more runners who could break into the top group this weekend, including the possible favorite: Cedar Springs freshman Kenzie Weiler won that Regional in 17:13.07, and her junior sister Katie was runner-up in 17:57.55.
Also in Division 2, in the boys race, Chelsea senior Bryce Bradley will try to finish with a championship after improving from 20th as a freshman to 10th and then to runner-up last season.
At last year's final, he finished less than a second ahead of Dearborn Divine Child’s Nicholas Soter, who also will be back at MIS. They'll both might have to fend off Mason Tanner Hinkle, who beat Bradley by 19 seconds in their Regional.
Only 15 girls have won at least three MHSAA cross country individual championships. But Breckenridge sophomore Kirsten Olling has lots of time – and at least a few opportunities.
Olling won last season’s Division 4 championship in 18:09.8. Fast forward to last weekend’s regional at Harbor Beach, which she won in 17:17 – more than 2 minutes faster than the runner-up.
Click for Saturday's schedule and race information, all Lower Peninsula finalists and links to regional results, and check back Saturday for coverage from MIS. Go online to FoxSportsDetroit.com for live coverage via the Finish Line Camera and live audio commentary throughout the race from reporters around the course.
(Top) Concord's Spencer Nousain will attempt to win his first MHSAA championship after finishing runner-up in Division 2 the last two seasons (Photo courtesy of Concord cross country program).
(Middle) Zeeland West's Rachele Schulist (1001) emerged from the pack -- including Grand Rapids Christian's Julia Bos (829) to claim last season's Division 2 championship.
(Bottom): Breckenridge's Kirsten Olling won last season's Division 4 championship as a freshman.
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.)