The Forest Park boys' cross-country team has been working toward a regional title for three years, but it has taken a wavy-haired "free spirit" from Alaska to help make it a reality.
From his first practice with the team this summer, Bryce Iverson has provided not only new talent but also a fresh attitude. He's only a sophomore, but Iverson is a big reason why Forest Park's boys' team -- which had never even qualified an individual -- enters Saturday's Virginia AAA state meet as the Northwestern Region champions.
"He's the piece of the puzzle that's been missing," said Coach Dave Davis, who started the program after coaching track at Georgetown. "Having him has been like looking at the big picture -- he makes it a perfect fit.
"We had a solid team, with [seniors] Erich [Friedlein], Richard [Bates] and Brandon Andrews, but we were missing one thing."
The Bruins needed a No. 1 runner who could get out and run up front, much like junior Beth Fahey does for the state meet-bound girls' team. Iverson proved his ability in that department at the regional meet, placing fifth behind several of the state's top runners -- Albemarle junior Hari Mix, Colonial Forge seniors Mike Porter and Sean Leyh and Osbourn Park's Anthony Arena.
But Davis said the team also needed a psychological spark, something Iverson provides with an offbeat attitude one might expect from an Alaska transplant. In fact, Davis said Iverson reminds him of the legendary Steve Prefontaine, the outspoken Olympian from Oregon who held every American running record between 2,000 and 10,000 meters in the mid-1970s.
"I'm not comparing them time-wise or ability-wise, but just looking at attitude," Davis said. "The team was leery of him at first, but when you have someone that talented, you adapt to it. Bryce is a free spirit -- he's a competitor, but he's also his own person."
Iverson mostly shrugs off his meaning to the team.
"I can score points for my team, that's all," he said. "I don't really see myself as the missing link."
But with a colorful headband ensnaring his long, wavy mane and his tales of training in a rain forest, many of his new classmates see him as exactly that. And Iverson, who certainly seems out of place in button-down Northern Virginia, said he has had to laugh off some people's misperceptions of growing up in Alaska.
"I've had a lot of stupid questions, like if we lived in an igloo and stuff, but I've sort of stopped listening."
Conversely, he said his friends back in Juneau weren't sure what to think of him moving to the East Coast with his parents, who work for the U.S. Forest Service.
"They were getting a little worried about me during" the sniper attacks, Iverson said. "They didn't think I was crazy, but they thought my parents were."
Iverson's biggest adjustment has been to a cross-country season that's twice as long as what he was used to in Alaska. It didn't help that he arrived in the humid, 95-degree days of summer after growing up with high temperatures in the 70s, or that he has had to trade rain forest runs for a lot of pavement and treadmills.
"It's been a long season for me, mainly just to stay motivated," he said. "In Alaska, we'd won the championship like the last 30 years -- but we only had three schools to run against."
However, the close-knit Bruins have helped him as much as he's helped them.
"As a freshman, I was just [on the team] for kicks and grins, but here I really realize what it's like to be on a team with good people," Iverson said. "I didn't really like moving, but I figured I'd belong wherever I am -- and I knew I'd already have friends with the cross-country team, because we can go for runs and talk about the same stuff."