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State finals
When: Saturday
Where: Indiana State, Terre Haute
Times: 1 p.m. boys, 1:45 p.m. girls
Admission: $8
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
Concordia’s Zach Panning is the favorite to win the state cross country championship Saturday at Indiana State. Panning had the state’s fastest semistate time at 15:19.36 last Saturday.

Cadets senior hits stride

Panning took to cross country slowly; aims for state title

– Concordia senior Zach Panning wasn’t exactly born to run. He even had to be talked into it.

His parents, Dave and Tammy Panning, began dating while running for Concordia in the late 1980s but that didn’t mean Zach would take to the sport.

As a freshman at Concordia, Panning was encouraged to play a sport, and he chose cross country. Panning began running casually about four years earlier, but it didn’t click right away. He even wanted to quit after finishing near last place in his final meet as a freshman.

“Somewhere between his freshman and sophomore years, he fell in love with it,” Dave Panning said. “You would take a look at the picture (with Zach running as an eighth-grader) and say this is guy is not a runner. He was not dedicated until he fell in love doing it. When that happens, it was just everything he wanted to do.”

Three years after his reluctant start, Panning is the favorite to win a state championship Saturday at Indiana State. Panning was the state runner-up last year and clocked the state’s fastest semistate time at 15:19.36 last Saturday at the IPFW course near The Plex North.

“It has been a big blessing to watch your son who is given a gift and use it to high levels like he is,” said Dave, who added that Zach has aspirations to run in college and the Olympics.

He would be the first individual boys champion from Fort Wayne since 1961.

“I haven’t thought about that,” Panning said of a state championship. “It is definitely a goal, but I haven’t thought that far ahead.”

Panning grew up around running, with his parents even coaching middle school teams and a young Zach tagging along.

“They kind of engrained it in my mind,” Zach said of running. “I didn’t run competitively or well (as a youngster).”

After trying baseball and basketball, it appeared hockey would be Panning’s forté. He played for the Leo team for a couple of years until giving it up to concentrate solely on running as a junior.

“I stopped playing hockey because I didn’t want to get injured,” Panning said. “I wasn’t going to run cross country my freshman year but they talked me into it to stay in shape for hockey. That’s what really got me started.”

And cross country quickly took over for hockey as No. 1.

“Hockey was something, at least when he started high school, he enjoyed more than anything,” Dave said. “To give that up for running was a big step for him.”

Even after last year’s state runner-up finish, Panning’s path back to move up one spot hasn’t been without its obstacles. In February, Panning tore his meniscus while playing church basketball and missed two months of running, including the spring track season.

“It’s tough, but it is a good motivator to get back into it and makes you love the sport even more,” Panning said of the injury. “After that I couldn’t wait until I got back into it. That’s when I realized how much I love this sport.”

Dave Panning said the injury was a blessing in disguise.

“I have been telling friends of mine that I think the injury actually helped him,” Dave said. “The success he had last year wants to make you want to go out and push yourself even harder, and he was willing to do that because he wanted that success. But that injury forced him to relax and not push himself during that time when he didn’t really have to be.”

gjones@jg.net

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