When Pleasant Valley’s boys cross country team heard the news last winter that its top runner was moving to Georgia, there was shock, sadness and disappointment. 

Just two points and three-tenths of a second from winning a Class 4A state championship last season, PV felt it had the ingredients coming back this fall to not only be one of the best teams in the state but possibly the country.

Even though Nicholas Yanek’s departure impacts the Spartans, coach Erik Belby’s team believes it still has enough talent to claim what eluded them last October in Fort Dodge.

“We know we can do it without him,” returning state qualifier Parker Huhn said. “We have a really deep team. We know what could have been with him, but we also think we have a really good shot still at state.”

The coaches agree.

PV starts the season ranked No. 1 in 4A by the Iowa Association of Track and Field Coaches, ahead of last year’s champion Dowling Catholic. Both teams return four of their top seven runners from the state meet.

Shortly after the state meet, the Spartans handled the Maroons by more than 80 points at the Nike Regional meet.

“That has driven us a lot,” senior Anthony Pena said, “to make sure what happened to us last year at state doesn’t happen this year. Being that close, coach Belby always talks about finishing that workout all the way through the line.

“Us working harder and staying focused is driving us.”

Still, PV has to replace its ace.

Yanek was last year’s Mississippi Athletic Conference champion, holds the school record for fastest 5,000-meter time by a sophomore and junior along with placing inside the top 10 at state.

The Spartans have had ample time to adjust as Yanek wasn’t with them for the track season.

“For me, he’s like Mark Conway and Ben Gorman, who were seniors that graduated from our program,” Belby said. “We’ve got to fill his spot. We were fortunate to have a fine young man like Nicholas for three years.

“It just gives us less room for error, but our guys are motivated by his absence to show they can still do it.”

Seniors Konnor Sommer and Pena fill the role as PV’s front-runners.

Sommer was 15th at last year’s state meet and performed well this past spring at the Drake Relays with a 3,200 of 9 minutes, 21.82 seconds. His summer training was limited, dealing with tendinitis in his hip flexor and Achilles that popped up during the conference meet in track and field.

“It is unfortunate that it happened,” Sommer said. “I’m not quite where I should have been if I weren’t injured, but I know if I do the right things, I can still put my best effort in at state.”

Pena is eager to redeem himself at the state meet.

After a season where he was primarily PV’s third runner, he was the team’s sixth finisher at the state meet.

“A lot of it was me getting hurt last year,” Pena said, “and my legs weren’t 100 percent under me. I’ve used that as motivation more than anything this summer so it doesn’t happen again.”

But more than ability, Sommer and Pena are trying to provide more leadership. Huhn and Gavin Smith also return from the state runner-up squad, but the remainder of the lineup will be new and include some underclassmen.

“We have a lot of young kids on the team this year, particularly on varsity,” Pena said. “It is important for me to be a good leader and be out in front in a lot of these races to help take the pressure off their shoulders.”

Sommer’s brother, Kole, a freshman, is expected to be in the mix. He was fifth at the team’s two-mile time trial earlier this month.

Belby said Kole Sommer has the physical and mental components to eventually be in the conversation as one of PV’s all-time distance greats.

“He’s definitely talented, and mentally he’s mature and smart,” Belby said. “The thing we need to watch out for is that he doesn’t do too much too soon and hits a wall in the middle of the season.”

Among the others vying for spots in PV’s lineup are sophomores Ian Kaffenberger and Kent Nichols along with senior Andrew Witters.

The Spartans have plenty of option with approximately 70 runners in the program, the largest squad Belby has had in his coaching tenure.

“It is a great testament to our team, our program and all those things that make you want to feel good wanting them to be involved in your program,” Belby said. “The big thing is continuing to develop that competitive mentality, top to bottom.”

PV just hopes it can remain healthy for the stretch run and capture its first state crown since 2008. The Spartans have made 14 straight state trips. 

"We were definitely hoping to get it last year," Konnor Sommer said. "Being that close, we were disappointed.

"We want it this year. Everyone is motivated."

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Prep sports editor, with emphasis on covering the Mississippi Athletic Conference and Iowa area high schools. I've been in sports journalism for 17 years, the last five at the Quad-City Times.