Watsonville High junior Laya Ruiz had a simple plan going into this year’s cross country season: go big or go home.
“I’ve definitely put in a lot more work than I have before,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz has won three Pacific Coast Athletic League center meets this season. She won the league opener in 18 minutes, 48 seconds on Sept. 18 at North Monterey County High.
Ruiz followed up with two more league center meet victories on Oct. 3 (18:03), which was a personal record, and won the season finale on Oct. 16 (18:50).
Ruiz also won the Aragon center meet (18:49) and also had a pair of top-10 finishes outside of league action. She placed ninth (17:30.53) at the San Francisco Lowell Invitational on Sept. 7.
Ruiz set a school record when she placed ninth (19:57.3) in the 5,000-meter race at the Clovis West Golden Eagle Cross Country Invitational on Sept. 27.
Ruiz said she pushed herself a little more this season and boosted her mileage count. She said at this point it’s all about conditioning and staying ready.
“It’s getting close to the end of high school and there’s certain goals you want to accomplish because that timeline is going to start crunching in on you,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said this season is an important because she has plans of going to college. She believes these next two years is the time to show what she has.
The Wildcatz’s star distance runner broke a track and field school record that stood for nearly 30 years.
Last year, she finished the 1,600-meter race in 5 minutes, 9.22 seconds — close to four seconds faster than the previous record during the Central Coast Section trials in May. Martha Luna set the record in 1990 when she finished the 1,600 in 5:12.94.
Ruiz also participated on the 4×100 relay team, which finished 18th in 4:17.53 and set a new freshman-sophomore record at the CCS championships.
Ruiz earned the final qualifying spot in the 3,200 finals but decided not to participate. She won the 3,200 at the inaugural Pacific Coast Athletic League Masters Meet.
Her list of goals for cross country include finishing in 18:20 or less at this weekend’s PCAL championships, which is something she believes she can do.
Ruiz said she also has her eyes set on a Central Coast Section championship on Nov. 16 at Crystal Springs in Belmont.
Last year, she placed second in 18:45.8 just behind Carlmont High junior Kaimei Gesuck (18:19.6).
“I’ve placed in the top-5 my last two years and I want to continue that,” Ruiz said.
Ruiz said she knows there’s a big bull’s-eye on her back and isn’t surprised about it one bit.
“Am I scared? No,” Ruiz said. “What am I going to do with it? Obviously if I’m a target it’s because they’re scared of me.”
Watsonville senior Miguel Leon said this year’s team is the largest he’s been apart of since he joined his sophomore season.
The group is 40 deep with a little less than half of them coming in as freshmen.
“It feels like a big family and we’ve been putting in a lot of work this summer,” Leon said.
Leon said he’s felt a little bit of pressure going into his final year on the team. He said it’s not just about the individual goals but it’s about being a team leader, too.
“Not just trying to be a big boss or an egotistical guy,” Leon said.
Still, there are some individual goals Leon would like to hit before the season is over. Like most, his first goal is to reach the CIF Cross Country Championships, otherwise known as the state meet.
Leon said he also wanted to improve his time on each course, including at North Monterey County where he shaved a minute and set a personal record best of 16:02 in a 3-mile race.
“It’s not just an individual achievement,” Leon said. “They motivate me and they drive me every day in practice to work harder.”
Watsonville senior Damian Rivas said the future is looking bright for the Catz, especially with a group of young runners who are making strides to finish at the top.
“At least for me, it’s comforting to know that once I graduate there’s still going to be people here that care,” Rivas said.
Rivas said he remembers coming in as a freshman and not being able to finish a workout. But he mentioned this year’s offseason was much different.
Rivas had an internship with the Science Internship Program at UC Santa Cruz during the summer. There, he got to train on his offtime by running eight to 10 miles every other day.
“I would just take a new path every day and just run,” Rivas said.
Rivas said he didn’t have a set list of goals for his final season and was just trying to improve on last year’s times. But he was determined to break some records set by previous Wildcatz athletes once he realized what type of shape he was in.
“Now I’m at the point physically where I can get times that are similar to our coaches’ times when they were in high school and that’s kind of cool to see,” Rivas said. “I’m running how they ran all those years ago and I can look at their times to do better.”
Up next, the Wildcatz will compete in the PCAL Cross Country Championships on Saturday at Toro Park in Salinas. The varsity girls race is scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.
Rivas said what he enjoys the most is working together as a team even though the top-five runners are the main scorers.
“That sixth or seventh man can be some of the most important runners in the race,” Rivas said. “The fact that it’s not just me running alone… we’re working as a cohesive unit to get these points and work together. That helps my mindset, at least.”
Editor’s Note: This article will be published in the Nov. 1 edition of The Pajaronian.