By Geoff Kimmerly
Second Half editor
This fall saw the start of numerous championship legacies all over the Michigan, the continuation of a few more and the end of one that likely will be recalled for decades to come.
All championship runs are memorable for those fortunate enough to achieve them. But because of historical reference, dramatic impact or in rare cases national significance, some stay in our discussions a little bit longer.
Below is one person’s thoughts on the most memorable finishes from this fall’s MHSAA Finals.
10. Novi, East Kentwood Rise to the Top
Among a number of first-time champions this fall, the Novi boys tennis team and East Kentwood girls golf team celebrated taking final steps after some recent close misses. Novi had finished second at the 2013 Lower Peninsula Division 1 Final, by a point, as Ann Arbor Huron won its third straight title. The Wildcats clinched their first ever this season, by eight points, while the East Kentwood golfers finished 22 strokes better than their LP Division 1 field after finishing 10th and sixth the last two seasons, respectively. Senior Emily White capped her high school career with a 51-foot putt to win the individual title.
The Saline girls swimming and diving team trailed reigning champion Farmington Hills Mercy by a half-point entering the final event of the LP Division 1 Final. But the Hornets outpaced Mercy by three seconds in the 400-yard freestyle relay to move ahead and claim the team championship by 5.5 points. Saline had finished runner-up to Mercy by 20 points in 2013.
From an incredible story point of view, Orchard Lake St. Mary’s 7-0 win over Muskegon in the Division 3 Football Final was easily the most memorable of the fall. Showing immense courage, Eaglets running back Brandon Adams took the field only two days after his mother died after fighting cancer. He scored the game’s lone points midway through the first quarter.
Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central’s Diane Tuller coached teams to 595 wins over 17 seasons – and in her final match took the Kestrels to their fifth MHSAA championship. St. Mary downed Schoolcraft in four sets despite dropping the first to claim its third Class C title in five seasons. The Kestrels became the eighth team to win at least five MHSAA titles, claiming all five under Tuller’s guidance.
Only 14 runners in MHSAA boys cross country history have won at least three individual championships. Concord’s Jason Hersha became the latest, claiming the LP Division 4 title in 15:23.0, the second-fastest time in LP Division 4 Finals history. He became only the third to win three boys titles since team and individual qualifiers began running the same race in 1996; he also finished first as a sophomore and junior.
Just one on-target kick can change a soccer game. That makes Canton’s undefeated run to this season’s Division 1 boys championship even more impressive. Finishing without a loss in any sport is something – but the Chiefs defeated Rochester Adams 1-0 in the Final to end 24-0-3 and as the 13th undefeated champion in MHSAA boys soccer history. Canton posted 16 shutouts this fall.
Despite trailing annual power Bloomfield Hills Cranbrook-Kingswood by six strokes after the first round, Spring Lake rolled through the second at the LP Division 3 Girls Golf Final to best the field by a final margin of 18 strokes and claim the school’s first MHSAA golf championship. The achievement was a crowning one for the program started by George Bitner, who has coached at the school since 1968 and fielded his first girls team in 1980.
Grand Blanc senior Grant Fisher finished his high school career with a second straight Lower Peninsula Division 1 championship – and the third-fastest time since the Finals moved to Michigan International Speedway 19 seasons ago. Fisher finished in 14:52.5, 1.5 seconds off the second-fastest time in MHSAA Finals history since 5K (3.1 miles) became the distance in 1980. The only runners who have come in faster than Fisher went on to the Olympics (Dathan Ritzenhein) and top American finishes (twice) at the Boston Marathon (Jason Hartmann).
Battle Creek St. Philip continued its near-decade dominance of Class D, but this time with another historical twist. The Tigers downed Leland in four sets in this season’s Final to win their ninth straight MHSAA championship – setting a record for consecutive titles after formerly being tied with the Marysville teams from 1997-2004. St. Philip entered the postseason ranked No. 3 in D but defeated both No. 2 Mendon and the top-ranked Comets during the final week.
Much of the credit for this topping the list goes to Ithaca, which brought a 69-game winning streak into the Division 6 Football Final. The streak was the longest active streak nationally among 11-player football teams, and a win would've allowed the Yellowjackets next fall an opportunity to break the MHSAA winning streak record of 72. But St. Mary controlled the clock with a workmanlike running game and held an Ithaca offense averaging 43 points to nearly a quarter of that in winning 22-12.
PHOTO: The East Kentwood girls golf team raised its first MHSAA Finals championship trophy this October. (Click for 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.)