GVSU’s Zach Panning scratching the surface on potential

GVL / Courtesy - Alan Steible
Zach Panning (517)

GVL / Courtesy - Alan Steible Zach Panning (517)

Jacob Arvidoson

He holds a Grand Valley State track and field record, finished 2016 as a top-five cross country runner nationally, received All-American honors more than once and yet he’s only a sophomore.

Laker distance star Zach Panning has proven he is one of the best, but unless you’re his teammate, his friend, or one of the numerous opponents he’s whizzed past during a race, you probably wouldn’t be able to pick him out of a crowd.

As teammates Nate Orndorf and Trevor Sharnas said, he doesn’t look like a championship runner.

“He has a weird body type. He’s an anomaly,” Sharnas said. “He’s known as ‘the fat kid’ on our team. You look at him and you wouldn’t guess that he’s a distance runner.”

“If you looked at the top 15 to 20 people at the cross country national meet, Zach would definitely be the one you would think is not a runner,” Orndorf said.

Yet Panning is as talented a runner as they come. In other sports it’s called basketball IQ or football IQ, and in the same way there’s a running IQ. Panning has that understanding and mental edge that helps him succeed.

That intelligence when racing has led Panning to the brink of distance running greatness. His performance at the NCAA Division II Cross Country National Championship, where he took fifth with a time of 29:58.3, was enough to lead GVSU to a second-place finish.

“We’ve finished second a few times now, so it’s just fueling the fire,” he said. “It was a good experience to finally get to run with some of those guys from out west, just to see where we stack up. With a kilometer to go we were winning the meet, proving to us that we can compete with an Adams State or a Colorado Mines.”

Just weeks later, Panning was back at it, this time as part of the Laker indoor track and field team. He picked up right where he left off, setting a school record in the 5,000-meter run with a time of 14:02.23 which also earned him an automatic berth to the national meet.

“It’s good because now I’m just chasing the 3,000-meter mark to get (to the national meet) in multiple events,” he said. “Last year I didn’t run another 5,000 until nationals, so it’s good not having to worry about it.”

Earning an appearance at nationals in the first meet of the year is a far cry from where Panning sat just two years ago.

The distance star was redshirted during his first academic year. He learned a lot from the process, but found it hard to sit and watch as the cross country team came up just short of a national title in 2014. Panning said in the back of his mind, he wondered if he could have possibly performed well enough to get the team over the hump.

“Distance running is something that takes time,” said GVSU distance coach Aaron Watson. “It’s not an overnight process, and that’s true across the board. You look at any program, at runners of any level, they’re going to be better, if done correctly, in their third, fourth or fifth year, than in their first couple years. 

“He’s done a good job of sticking to the plan and staying focused. It’s easy to get lost in the forest or not be able to see the light at the end of the tunnel for a lot of our first and second year kids on the distance side.”

But wisdom and skill come with experience and patience. Watson credits Panning’s dedication to the process and to training as a big reason for his steady rise in success.

“He always finds ways to get better,” Watson said. “He had some fluke injuries and illnesses throughout high school that kept him from putting in continuous mileage. Even his first eight or nine months here he’s had some of those.

“He’s found some consistency in training. We really worked on his core strength and lifting and he’s improved those a bunch. From there we’ve improved his diet. He’s made the changes, but we’ve encouraged him to.”

The mentor-mentee relationship between Panning and senior Bryce Bradley has helped the budding star stay devoted to the training preached by the GVSU coaching staff. The two have spent a lot of time training together.

“He just lives the lifestyle you have to live,” said Panning, who roomed with Bradley during the 2015-16 school year. “I think it’s important to see that in someone else as a leader, not always saying something, but watching the person that you look up to actually do these things. Having that chance to live with him, and see all the things that he did that made him the way that he was and is, was probably my best experience.”

Panning’s success and recent accolades are a testament to the time he has put in as well as to the natural talent he possesses, and though Bradley is proud of him, he still believes the apprentice has yet to eclipse the master. Even given Panning’s new school record in the 5,000 meters, Bradley feels he still owns his understudy on the track.

“I think in the 3,000 I’ve got him and in the 5,000 it’s going to be a great race, but I have to take myself on that one too,” Bradley said. “I have faster personal records in both as of right now. I think it would be a great race, but I don’t know if he could hang on in the last lap.”

Only a sophomore, Panning’s GVSU legacy is still to be determined, but his teammates and coaches all feel his name will be next to several more records before he graduates.

Watson is excited to have a talent like Panning coming back for two more years, but he is more excited to bring Panning’s personality and attitude.

“He’s got great energy, he’s a great team person, and he’s taken fifth place at the cross country meet the last two years,” Watson said. “It’s great to have that thought process from the person who’s leading your group out on the course. We’re excited. He’s got a lot of potential. We’ve scratched the surface, but we haven’t reached the ceiling of what Zach’s capable of.”