From ROTC roots, Sarasota' Lanning marches toward front of the 4A pack

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Jon Lanning didn’t take the traditional route to the world of high school running, but in 2 ½ short years, the Sarasota High senior has worn a path littered with success.

As a high school sophomore, Lanning distinguished himself during ROTC fitness competition team by regularly finishing first in area races comprised of running, sit-ups and other physical fitness tests.

“When it ended in February (of 2007), I went out for track,” said Lanning.

In what amounted to a one-year metamorphosis, Lanning blossomed into one of the state’s premier milers by the spring of ‘08, on the heels of a stunning seventh-place finish at the ‘07 4A state cross country championship in his first season of 5k competition.

Saturday he returns to Little Everglades Ranch with an eye on a top-three individual finish, if not better.

“I had aspirations to come back this season and place first, or top-three (at state),” said Lanning, who was inspired by his inaugural showing at LER last November. “That was a big up-lifting (moment) for me.”

Lanning doesn’t seem fazed by the stout field of individual contenders in the 4A race, including Melbourne junior and defending champion Brian Atkinson, the top-rated, odds-on favorite. That’s because he has more than held his own against some of the state’s best, including neighboring rival and friend Derek Wehunt from Sickles. Their rivalry began in earnest last fall when Wehunt edged Lanning by four-tenths of a second at the state meet.

This season, they have split four head-to-head meetings, including last week’s Region 2 title, when Lanning finished second to Atkinson.

“I wasn’t even focused trying to catch up to Brian,” said Lanning. “I was really concerned with Derek catching up with me like he did at district. … I was focused on maintaining my position.”

While Lanning posted a PR of 15:35 at the Bradenton Runner’s Club Invitational this season, his state meet aspirations were heightened by a sixth-place finish at Pre-State, when he turned in a breakthrough 15:41. He was just 15 seconds behind Atkinson, who finished third.

I thought, ‘I’m not a half-bad runner,’” Lanning said, understating his effort.

He enters the championship ranked fourth, behind Atkinson, Bartram Trail’s Chris Dendor and Niceville’s Christian Ritacco.

“I’ve always kind of let [Atkinson] do his thing,” said Lanning. “I think it’s time to say, ‘Hey, I’m a senior and maybe it’s time to win a state championship.’”

Individual goals aside, Lanning has equally lofty aspirations for the Sailors, who have overcome the preseason loss of two of their top seven runners - No. 2 runner Alexander Tiesi and Lanning’s twin brother Seth - to have an outstanding season.

“We’re thinking at least top-five and hopefully top-three if everything goes right,” said Lanning, who is quick to credit coaches Kyle Mendenhall and Dr. Alan King for developing a contender in two short seasons. “I really do think we have a great program and great coaching.”

Though Kyle Mason serves as the team’s captain, Mendenhall said Lanning has played no small role in pulling this group of “characters” - which includes Cooper Davis, Nick Johnson, AndrewMendoza, Julian Gomez and Mark Pellman - together.

“Jon has been a leader by example,” Mendenhall said. “He never questions the work load. He just cranks it out. I believe with our taper, he might surprise some people this Saturday, like he did at Pre-State.”

Still a relative novice to the sport, Lanning’s best running days appear in front of him. He has managed to take his talent to another level this season, despite his failure to invest much time in building a base over the summer while piling up hours as a lifeguard.

“I admit, maybe I should have run during the summer,” he said. “I could have been better, but I’m pretty happy with where I am now, chasing someone down like Brian.”

While quick to admit he’s still learning “how to race and strategize,” Lanning’s preternatural talent and confidence have carried him far enough that he sees a future in running beyond high school.

“I want to make my coaches proud, to bring back a state title for them,” said Lanning, who has heard from coaches at Florida Gulf Coast, USF and Florida this season. “Winning a state title would also mean more opportunities for college.”