A foot injury prevented Anthony Pena from reaching his optimal level last season for the Pleasant Valley boys cross country team.
That setback, which resulted in a sub-par performance at the Class 4A state meet, has kept him motivated all summer.
It showed Saturday morning in PV's season opener at the Spartan Challenge.
Pena paced the top-ranked Spartans with a sixth-place finish in the 5,000-meter run at Crow Creek Park in 16 minutes, 13 seconds.
"He's extremely focused," PV coach Erik Belby said. "He's really matured a lot as a runner and gotten wiser with the way he competes.
"Everything he does on a daily basis is focused toward his goals as a runner."
PV was third in the 14-team field with 103 points. Edina (Minn.) had three in the top nine to capture the team title with 40 points. Wheaton North, in the field for the first time, was runner-up with 65.
Pena was the Spartans' sixth finisher at last year's state meet. After a solid track and field season, Pena said last year's injury has driven him to remain healthy during the summer.
He's eating better, taking ice baths, stretching more and even tinkering with yoga.
"I've just grown and gotten more mature about things," Pena said. "I'm the runner I've always been, but I'm just waiting to finally get a full season under me. I think this might be the year for that to happen."
Teammate Konnor Sommer joined Pena in the top 10 with an eighth-place finish in 16:23. Ian Kaffenberger was PV's third finisher in 22nd followed by Parker Huhn and Gavin Smith.
Even though the Spartans were the top Iowa tem, fourth-ranked Cedar Rapids Prairie and fifth-ranked Johnston were within 20 points of them.
"We really ran well with our front two, but we've got to find a way to bring our fourth and fifth runners closer to our third," Belby said. "If we want to be a threat to win the state championship, we've definitely got to tighten up that pack, and I think we will."
Pena was in second place with about a mile remaining. The "Incinerator" hill caused him to lose ground to the front-runners.
Iowa City West's Kolby Greiner established a meet record with his time of 15:45, 23 seconds ahead of runner-up Max Manley of Edina.
"I had a game plan going into the race to stick about 20 meters behind Greiner," Pena said. "I had to go a little bit earlier than I was expecting to go. That's what got me."
Sommer improved his time by 37 seconds from last year's Spartan Challenge. Still, he wasn't satisfied.
"The competition was definitely better than I thought it was going to be," he said. "I didn't expect Edina and Wheaton North to be quite this good.
"Other than Anthony and Ian, nobody on our team had a very good race today. We definitely have a lot of work to do."
PV sees reigning 4A champion Dowling Catholic on Thursday in a meet at Marshalltown. It will be another barometer to see where Belby's team stands in September.
"It is only the first race and nothing to worry about too much," Sommer said, "but in the coming weeks we need to close that pack."
Davenport West was ninth with 246 points. Senior Andrew Wright led the Falcons in 20th in 16:45. Wright said West is focused on making a run at the state meet this season.
"We're working more towards October," Wright said. "Our times aren't amazing right now, but that's OK. At the end of the year is when we really want to run fast and do well."
PV Spartan Challenge
At Crow Creek Park
Team scores — 1. Edina (Minn.) 40; 2. Wheaton North 65; 3. Pleasant Valley 103; 4. Cedar Rapids Prairie 116; 5. Johnston 119; 6. Iowa City West 175; 7. Iowa City High 175; 8. Dubuque Senior 212; 9. Davenport West 246; 10. Moline 285; 11. North Scott 290; 12. Muscatine 303; 13. Bettendorf 365; 14. Burlington 395
Top 10 — 1. Kolby Greiner (Iowa City West) 15:45; 2. Max Manley (Edina) 16:08; 3. Owen Gage (Edina) 16:09; 4. Jalen Hildebrand (Dubuque Senior) 16:10; 5. Justin Ostrem (Wheaton North) 16:12; 6. Anthony Pena (PV) 16:13; 7. Joey Simon (Wheaton North) 16:18; 8. Konnor Sommer (PV) 16:23; 9. Willem Gokemeijer (Edina) 16:25; 10. Connor Zydek (Wheaton North) 16:27
PV — 6. Pena 16:13; 8. Sommer 16:23; 22. Ian Kaffenberger 16:49; 33. Parker Huhn 17:05; 34. Gavin Smith 17:06
Davenport West — 20. Andrew Wright 16:45; 26. Kameron Morgan 16:51; 62. Jordan Gravert 18:07; 67. Brett Wisor 18:23; 71. Alex Schwindt 18:40
Moline — 13. Andrew Ellison 16:38; 55. Nikola Stojanovic 17:49; 60. Ryan Lodico 18:01; 78. Bryce Johnson 19:14; 79. Sam Adams 19:21
North Scott — 39. Jackson Schrock 17:12; 53. Owen West 17:41; 63. Chase Porter 18:09; 66. Gabe Jensen 18:16; 69. Colin Wiersema 18:28
Muscatine — 31. Tyler Olson 17:00; 56. Tevin Tovar 17:50; 61. Brighton Kraft 18:06; 72. Owen Hazelwood 18:44; 83. Eli Roeth 19:30
Bettendorf — 58. James Baker 17:51; 65. Brendan Scott 18:10; 76. Ben Curry 19:01; 80. Nick Ratigan 19:23; 86. Chris Arevalo 20:30