Bellingham United forward Tyler Bjork sits in a car on I-5 six hours a week to commute to the two Hammers training sessions.
An hour and a half each way from his home in Kirkland to Bellingham is a hefty commitment for a practice, but Bjork doesn't care.
"The drive is just a drive. Enjoy the view and take it for what it is," Bjork said in a phone interview. "It's just a passion for playing that keeps me going."
The training has paid off for the 24-year-old forward. He is the Evergreen Premier League's leading goal scorer, netting 11 goals in 11 games.
Bjork entered the season with big shoes to fill. Kellan Brown departed from the Hammers after the 2013 season along with Oscar Jimenez.
But Bjork entered 2014 as a different player, coach Lance Calloway said in a phone interview.
"He's always been a really hardworking player with very good technical skills," Calloway said. "This year he's had a breakout season because Tyler's developed a sense of calmness in his game and it's helped him be more effective."
Bjork went to school at Western Washington University with Brown and Jimenez. The trio arrived at WWU the same year and left the same year. Bjork has always played second fiddle to the star strikers. 2014 was Bjork's chance to break out of that mold.
"The three of us were always together so I never felt like I had to take on the game myself. I was so used to having them and giving them opportunities to score," Bjork said. "I had to step up. I knew coming in that there weren't going to be a lot of other goal scorers."
At times, Bjork has been unstoppable for the third-place Hammers (6-4-1). On Sunday, June 8, Bjork had the game of his life.
In front of the home crowd, Bjork converted a pentaly kick in the first minute followed by five more goals over the course of the next 34 minutes, breaking the league scoring record in the process. His sixth and final goal came in impressive fashion, watching Bjork elevate for a side volley scissor kick into the net.
"It was surreal," Bjork said. "I laughed about it to myself during the game. I was like 'What on earth is happening?'"
Even before the breakout performance, Calloway saw a much-improved player. He was getting the opportunities, but they weren't falling his way, Calloway said.
Bjork is a forward who can work hard for a full game. He doesn't ever quit, Calloway said. He's extremely competitive and hates losing.
This year he's harnessed that competitive edge into something more positive.
"His game's matured quite a bit," Calloway said. "When things aren't going right, he isn't getting frustrated. He's staying calm and focused and staying within himself. He's not trying to do too much."
Bjork's new maturity could be attributed to his love for the game. It's always been there, but the offseason has helped him realize how much soccer means to him.
"I've been enjoying myself and having a lot of fun," Bjork said. "When I'm out there, I'm free from whatever stresses there may be at the time. None of those are on my mind when I'm on the field. I want to take advantage of that. I feel at peace when I'm out there."
He also wants to make other players feel the same way. One of his main goals as one of the older players on the team is to make the game enjoyable for everyone and keep the team balanced, Bjork said.
A lot of the younger players look up to Bjork for leadership. He's relatable. Many of the players went to WWU like Bjork and share the same passion for the game.
For the WWU players, it's a chance to stay sharp during the offseason. In return, the Hammers get a ton of local talent. Calloway describes it as a "symbiotic relationship."
"They bring a level of understanding," Bjork said of the WWU athletes. "Not every player has the privilege of playing at a D-II school."
Many of the players may even stick around after college like Brown, Jimenez, Bjork and many others have.
Bellingham is certainly benefiting from the injection of Vikings. The Hammers (19 points) currently sit in third place behind South Sound (25) and Vancouver (24).
Although an Evergreen title may be out of the Hammers' hands, the goal is to win the final three games and end on a hot streak, Bjork said.
As for what lies ahead for Bjork, Calloway thinks he can play at the next level, which is the PDL or USL.
"If he wants to do that, we want to encourage him and do our best to help him get there."
For Bjork, playing at the professional level would be a dream, but he just wants to play for as long as he physically can.
Right now, his focus is on trying to capture an Evergreen title. With his striking ability, the Hammers can't be counted out.
Reach Joshua Hart by email at email@example.com or by phone at 360-715-2851.