By Brad Fauber
WOODSTOCK -- Central cross country coach Melissa Wright wasn't quite sure what the Falcons had in Ivan Alvarado last season.
Alvarado, then a freshman, had opted to try cross country for the first time last fall to help better prepare him for the high school soccer season later in the school year. Although Alvarado had never raced competitively before, he caught on to the concept rather quickly.
"Last year when he showed up on the first day we had no idea who Ivan was, and he comes to practice and he was pretty young, obviously coming in as a freshman," Wright said. "But as the year progressed he kept getting better and better. Ivan just has a lot of natural talent and it's fun to see him keep developing."
Alvarado impressed Wright and Central assistant coach Larry Bullock early on, enough to prompt the coaches to slot him in as the Falcons' No. 2 runner behind Tristan Lucy-Speidel. By the midway point of the season, Alvarado had overtaken Lucy-Speidel as Central's top boys runner.
"He came onto the scene pretty strong from the start," Wright said. "He ran as our No. 2 for half the season and then there was just that clicking point. Coach [Larry] Bullock told him at one time, 'Hey, you need run with Tristan.' So he started running with Tristan and as that happened that's when he became the No. 2 runner. Then somewhere about midway through the season he started taking over and being the lead runner."
Alvarado shined at the top of the Falcons' racing lineup during the second half of the season. In the Bull Run District meet hosted by Rappahannock County, Alvarado led Central's boys with an eighth-place finish, clocking in at a time of 17 minutes, 42 seconds.
The following week, Alvarado set a Central freshman record on the Falcons' home North Street course, as he turned in a time of 16:38.45 to place seventh in the Conference 28 meet while helping Central's boys to a second-place finish.
"I didn't know I was going to be that fast," Alvarado admitted. "It was kind of surprising."
Alvarado continued to pace Central in the Region 3A East race at Great Meadow, as he finished 30th with a time of 17:57 on the rolling course while also fighting through some discomfort for much of the meet. His time was just fast enough to qualify him for the Group 3A state meet, the only Central boy to accomplish that feat last season.
"I had a really bad side stitch that time, but I still barely made it. I was like two places off from not going to states. It was very close," Alvarado said.
"It was very hard," he added about running through the pain. "I was just trying not to think about it too much."
Alvarado went on to place 70th in the state competition, also held at Great Meadow, but he shaved 23 seconds off his time from the regional meet in the process.
Alvarado's success in 2013 has established him as one of the leaders for the Falcons this season, and Wright said she expects to see a similar progression from him again this season as a sophomore.
Central's boys team lost eight seniors to graduation, but Alvarado and Lucy-Speidel -- plus a handful of other established runners and a few promising incoming freshmen -- should do well in helping the Falcons along this season as they attempt to put together a more complete team effort.
"I'd love to see them get to states," Wright said. "We fell short there at the regional meet, but we're in a tough region. I think our conference once again is going to be tough to get out. I think our strength has always been in our pack. Wyatt Robinson and Tristan and Ivan are going to be up there leading, but then the next four kids are going to be fairly close to each other and I think that's going to help us a lot."
Alvarado said he hopes the Falcons can reach the 3A state meet as a group this fall, and he expects strong competition from Lucy-Speidel -- who Wright praised for his offseason work -- at the top of the Falcons' lineup.
Central will get its first chance to gauge exactly how it stacks up against its competition this weekend, as the Falcons are hosting a 13-team invitational on Saturday. The field includes Skyline, Stonewall Jackson, Strasburg and Massanutten Military Academy, as well as several of Central's Conference 28 competition.
"We'd love to have a great showing, especially since we're hosting," Wright said. "I think since they know the course it's an advantage, but we're in the same boat as everyone else. We have no idea who has what out there and what our competition is going to look like. We definitely have some teams coming in with some rich traditions. It'll be fun. I think it will be fun for all the teams to come and see where they are at this point."