Watsonville High cross country coach David Knight said qualifying for the Central Coast Section Cross Country Championships will and always be the end goal for them.
The Wildcatz boys’ and girls’ teams both advanced to the section finals following another strong performance at the Pacific Coast Athletic League Masters Meet on Oct. 28.
“It’s never a given,” Knight said. “And there’s some really good teams in the league this year, in our division specifically. So, we had to really fight for our spot but it was well-earned by the kids.”
The Wildcatz are not strangers to the section finals, yet this year’s group does have a lot of new athletes competing on the big stage in the Division I finals for the first time.
Knight said it’ll also be an eye-opening experience to see where they stand as a program.
“So, we’re not done,” he said. “I think we got a good chance to make it to another level after this. We’re just blessed to have this opportunity and we’re gonna take full advantage.”
Katelynn Ruiz, a junior, was excited to capture her third straight PCAL individual title after winning the Mission Division race in 20 minutes, 19.8 seconds.
However, she was upset at the fact the public announcer didn’t recognize her teammates for their accomplishment after they placed second as a team.
The ‘Catz finished with a score of 66 just behind Mission Division champion King City with 38 points.
“I feel bad for a lot of the other seniors because we’ve all been putting in a lot of work,” she said.
Sophomore Lizbeth Gomez-Abrica, sophomore Aaron Gonzalez, senior Angela Herbert, sophomore Giselle Marquez, junior Azucena Sandoval and freshman Alma Vasquez will get another chance for their names to be heard at the upcoming CCS Championships,
They’re hoping history will repeat itself after the ‘Catz last year qualified for the CIF State Championships at Woodward Park in Fresno.
“Anything is possible,” Knight said. “It’s tougher in Division I, and like I said, we have a lot of runners who it’s their first time at this level.”
Ruiz placed first overall in all three PCAL center meets and won the league championships this season. She also won an all-juniors race at the Fighting Knights Joust meet, placed 10th in the Lowell Invitational and took 31st in last month’s Asics Clovis Invitational.
Ruiz will have a chance to cap off a spectacular junior year by winning a CCS individual title for the first time in her young career. She placed fourth in 2022.
Ruiz is also looking forward to the opportunity of returning to the CIF State Championships, which was a personal goal she set prior to the season.
“I know I’ve put in all the work and I honestly think that I’m confident enough going into this race,” Ruiz said. “I know it’s not gonna be as easy as last year because every year everybody gets stronger. But I think I’m capable of doing it and I know I’ll reach my goal.”
Knight mentioned that Ruiz has a drive that most champions do and it’s not often we get to see an athlete of her caliber, especially one with three-straight league titles under her belt.
“It’s a testament to her doing all the little things over the course of not just this season, but the cumulative effects of past seasons as well,” Knight said.
Giancarlo Mendo, a senior, has vastly improved since the beginning of the season. He won his first PCAL center meet race in 15:53 at the regular season finale in Castroville.
“He’s had an awakening,” Knight said. “He’s a different runner. He made some choices to focus on the sport. He’s made some sacrifices in order to get to the level where he is.”
Mendo worked on having a healthier lifestyle and being mentally stronger, knowing how and when to push during the tougher times. He also believes practices and the offseason training have been more aggressive than last year.
“I feel like we just put in more mileage, just more work and sleep, too,” Mendo said.
Most of his motivation also came from wanting to break some of his dad’s previous marks he set at Watsonville High.
Mendo is currently attempting to break his dad’s personal best finish of 16:12 at Crystal Springs.
He can also become the first boys state qualifier for Watsonville since 2006 when Alejandro Alvarez-Bautista took 4th in the CCS Championships.
Fellow teammates junior Rodrigo Barranco, senior Ernesto Martinez, senior Eli Romero, sophomore Desi Salinas-Holz and junior Jared Sunga will join Mendo at this weekend’s section finals.
Watsonville placed fourth as a team with a score of 96 behind Greenfield (95), Hollister (71) and this year’s Mission Division champion Monte Vista Christian (60).
The way Mendo sees it, the CCS finals is the one race that determines how the season can end or if runners have enough to make it onto the next level to the CIF State Championships.
“It’ll mean a lot,” said Mendo on possibly advancing to the state finals. “It will mean the season went how I planned. The plan is just to beat the record my dad made and just make it to State, too.”
Knight said both Mendo and Ruiz have been a pair of the strongest leaders they’ve had in a while and the ‘Catz’s roster continues to grow each year.
Knight cited the city of Watsonville has incredibly talented runners that can shape the program into a successful one.
“It’s just a matter of having enough time to build these athletes so that they can reach the highest levels,” he said.