BROOKSVILLE — Cody Van Natter is passionate about two sports, but he has become an elite distance runner over his prep career, leaving soccer as more of a hobby.
For that, Nature Coast coach Eric Milholland is grateful. Van Natter is free to anchor the Sharks as they run toward a state berth.
Van Natter, whose brother Jeff was on the team before graduating last season, won the 35th annual Zac Lukas Invitational last month at McKethan Lake in Brooksville, his first career race win. He was closely followed by the rest of the Nature Coast squad, as Milholland praised pack-running in practice leading up to the event.
At the Zak Lucas, Nature Coast finished with eight of the top 10 runners. Van Natter (16 minutes, 56 seconds) led the way, vocally and emotionally.
“Cody is the type of leader that will get those guys fired up,” Milholland said. “I do my best to get them going, but he’s always there to raise the intensity.”
Kevin Ciccone, runnerup to Van Natter at McKethan Lake, has been right behind Van Natter in almost every race. The two have crossed the finish side by side in almost every competition so far on the schedule.
“They actually push each other, and it makes for a great team effort,” Milholland said. “When I take the reins off of them in a couple of weeks, these guys are going to have some great times.”
While Van Natter continues to play for First Hernando Youth Soccer and the school team, he is dedicated to cross country. His father admits that since his brother went on to St. Leo University to run for the collegiate program there, Van Natter has focused his energy more on getting a Division I-A scholarship.
“Cody is starting to see what’s more important, and he is good enough to get into a top college just because of his running ability,” Jeffrey Van Natter said. “Because of that, he is working harder than ever before at improving his times out here (on the course).”
Wiregrass Ranch has been dominant in North Suncoast distance running for years, but with the help of Van Natter setting fast times and pumping up his teammates, the Sharks are making a bid for that title.
At the Gator Invitational at Crews Lake Park on Oct. 1, Nature Coast came in second to Wiregrass Ranch. Milholland admits that though his team won’t see the Bulls again this season, his team is far from peaking.
“We have a plan,” he said. “When it all comes together, people are going to see what these boys can do.”
Van Natter also came in first at the Bear Run at Central on Oct. 5 with a time of 17:23. His personal best was a 16:16 at the Mitchell Invitational on Sept. 17, but most programs agree that the course at that race was a bit shorter than regulation. His second-best time was at the Hernando Citrus Classic last October at McKethan Lake (16:42).
When talking to the junior, he seems less concerned about personal achievements than what is at stake for him and his teammates.
“We have a chance to do something great,” Van Natter said after his win at Zak Lucas. “We worked hard …because we knew it wasn’t about one of us winning this race and getting a great time. It was about all of us sticking together and pushing each other.
“These are the same guys I want to be there with me at the end when I run at districts.”