WATSONVILLE — Layla Ruiz has become a bit of a local celebrity over the course of her magical freshman cross country season at Watsonville High.

More than a handful of times, the Wildcatz’s star runner has been recognized and congratulated for her accomplishments at the local, section and state level by a complete stranger. It began while joining her mom, Edith, a teacher at Landmark Elementary, at parties for Pajaro Valley Unified School District employees, and it’s branched out to an everyday occurrence.

“At first, I thought it was just my mom telling her friends,” Ruiz said, “but as it kind of expanded I thought it was cool. It’s nice to have that support.”

She has plenty of awards to accompany the public notoriety.

Her latest honor, however, trumps them all.

A pint-sized, hard-nosed runner that made her name known this season, Ruiz was voted the top freshman female cross country runner in all of Northern California by a committee of coaches and writers from the various sections of the area.

The honor comes hot on the heels of her second-place finish in the freshman race of the Foot Locker Cross Country National Championship West Regional at Mt. SAC in Southern California, and her nomination to the All-Central Coast Section Second Team.

The 11-person committee, which featured three reps from the CCS, two from the Sac-Joaquin Section, two from the Northern Section, one from the North Coast Section, one from the Oakland Section, one from the San Francisco Section and a member of the media, not only decided to name her top newcomer but also gave her a spot on the All-NorCal Third Team.

Aptos High senior Marea Zlatunich, a three-time placer at the California Interscholastic Federation state meet and a CCS champ last season, made the All-NorCal Second Team a week after making the All-CCS First Team.

Ruiz is the first female runner from Watsonville to earn a spot on an All-NorCal team since Martha Luna made the third team in 1989 and is also the program’s first runner, male or female, to earn the honor of NorCal Freshman of the Year since Francisco Lopez in ’89.

“It’s incredible,” said Watsonville head coach Rob Cornett. “What a year.”

Along with that award, Ruiz also made history by winning the Monterey Bay League Pacific division championship and advancing to the CIF state meet by taking third in the CCS Division I race. She became the program’s first female league champ since Luna in ’89 and the first state qualifier since Consuelo Matta in 2000.

“She came out of nowhere,” Cornett said, “but I told her sometimes it’s better to be the dark horse.”

At the CIF state meet at Woodward Park in Fresno, Ruiz took 30th in the Division I race. She was the second fastest freshman in the heat and seventh fastest overall.

That race, Ruiz said, is the one she considers her best of the year.

“Even though I got 30th, the time I got was faster than I’ve ever run before — everything just felt right on that day,” Ruiz said. “I didn’t win a championship but on the inside I felt like I won.”

As people are buzzing about Ruiz’s accomplishments around town, Cornett said the conversation around her at the section level is growing, too. That, the coach said, is all Ruiz’s doing. He did not campaign for her to earn the honor. The committee made the decision on its own.

“We can’t hide her anymore — everyone knows about her now,” Cornett said. “As a coaching staff we haven’t even tried to push her name out there. She’s making her own name with her accomplishments.”

Rather than setting goals of winning a section title or landing on the podium at the state meet next season, Ruiz said she simply wants to make sure that cross country is still something she finds enjoyable and doesn’t interfere with her school work.

“It has to be something that I want to do,” Ruiz said. “I want to show up every day happy to run.”

Cornett said if Ruiz does decide to stick with it, she has a very bright future.

“She has the athleticism — there’s no question about that — but then you factor in desire, grades and her approach, and she’s the complete package,” Cornett said. “She gets it.”

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