Tanner Burton calls the hurdles an obsession, and he doesn’t choose that word lightly.

“For me, yeah, it’s an obsession,” Burton, a Messalonskee High School senior, said. “I’m always watching anything hurdles related.”

That attention to his event, that passion, drove Burton to the Class A 55-meter hurdles state title in February, and a third-place finish in the New England high school championships. Burton also helped lead Messalonskee to a second consecutive Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship.

For his efforts, Tanner Burton is the Morning Sentinel and Kennebec Journal Boys Indoor Track and Field Athlete of the Year.

“Physically, he’s gifted with a good amount of speed. He just loves the event. If there were three hurdle events, he’d do all three,” Messalonskee track and field coach Matt Holman said.

Burton has watched Aries Merritt’s 110 meter hurdle world record run over and over again. Burton studies Merritt’s 12.8 second race, noting every detail. Burton looks for anything that will improve his efforts.

“I’m looking at (Merritt’s) form and comparing it to mine. There’s little things on form that will help,” Burton said. “I’ll show it to friends and family, but they don’t get it. I want to be perfect.”

In winning the KVAC Class A and state championships in the 55 hurdles in February, Burton wasn’t perfect, but he was still very good. Burton ran 7.82 seconds to win the conference meet at Bowdoin College on Feb. 4. Sixteen days later, he won the Class A state title in 7.73 seconds, well ahead of second place Shammah Gahomera of Westbrook (7.98).

It’s paying attention to the smallest details that has made Burton the top hurdler in the state. Coming into the season, Burton had a few things on which he wanted to work. He focused on keeping his left arm closer to his torso, making it easier to transition from the hurdle to the drive phase when running. Burton also worked on getting his lead leg to the ground a little quicker, he said.

“As soon as I see my heal come over the hurdle, I want to engage the muscles in my left leg down on to the track,” Burton said.

Burton’s biggest improvement may have come with his block starts. He worked on a skating style start, he said, and enjoyed success.

“It got to be a huge advantage. I was beating people off the blocks,” Burton said.

Added Holman: “His block start has improved quite a bit. His time over the hurdles has greatly decreased. His form has improved immensely. Doing that five times in an indoor race really cuts your time.”

That improvement was not of display in the preliminary round race at the New England championships on March 4. Burton said he felt out of sync early, and he came out of the blocks slow. He hit a hurdle, a rare occurance for him.

“I hadn’t hit a hurdle bad in a while. I hit it hard. I completely clattered it,” Burton said.

Even so, Burton recovered and ran 7.843 seconds in the prelim race, earning the eighth and final spot in the finals by four one-hundreths of a second.

“It’s challenging to go to the New England meet. Warmups are different. Chances are, when they fire the gun, it’s the first time you’re going over a hurdle,” Holman said.

With a tough race out of the way, Holman told Burton to relax. You made it, Holman said, now you’ve got nothing to lose.

Burton had another slow start in the finals.

“I reacted incredibly late to the gun. Now I have to just chase. The last two (hurdles) really clicked. I went as fast as I could, just throwing my legs over the hurdles,” Burton said.

With a pair of New Hampshire runners, Billy Powers and Oliver Thomas, well ahead of the pack in the top two spots, Burton was in a pack fighting for spots three through six. After the blanket finish was studied, it was apparent Burton took third place, his 7.751 time again four one-hundreths of a second better than the close competition.

With the spring season coming up, Burton wants to add the 110 meter hurdle state championship to his resume. He placed second in the Class A state meet last June, in 15.2 seconds.

“I’d like to go 14.2 (seconds), but that’s incredibly ambitious,” Burton said. “Any time under 15 would be good. The main goal is to win states.”

Added Holman: “He just needs to continue to work on getting stronger and faster. One hundred and 10 meters will expose any flaws in anybody’s race.”

Burton plans to continue his track and field career at Roanoke College in Virginia.

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

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Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM