WATSONVILLE—On a gorgeous Monday afternoon at Pajaro Valley High School dozens of student-athletes began to partake in their daily practice routines. But among the sea of green and gray associated with the Grizzlies, a small splotch of black and gold could be seen: Layla Ruiz of the Watsonville High track and field team.
Ruiz and the Wildcatz had nowhere else to go this track season due to a renovation project at Emmett M. Geiser Field. The quick shift to their cross-city rival’s turf seems like a minuscule move considering the year of closures, cancelations, reopenings and reschedulings they’ve had to deal with.
“It’s just so weird, it doesn’t make any sense to me,” she said.
Ruiz, who holds nearly every school record in both cross country and long distance track events, is still saddened at the fact of not being able to compete or practice one last time at Geiser Field. But, she said the biggest upside to the construction project is that she’ll be able to participate in an in-person graduation ceremony in June. After that she will be attending UC Los Angeles, which is a school that she has always been a fan of because of its academics and athletic programs.
“It’s a childhood dream that I was able to make come true,” she said.
Ruiz says she wants to compete in track and field for the Bruins. Nothing is official yet, but there’s a high probability that she’ll be joining them next year.
Before heading to Southern California, she’ll get another crack at resetting her own records at the Central Coast Section track and field championship scheduled to begin June 12 at Soquel High School.
The semifinals are two weeks away, and she knows it’ll be a bittersweet moment. Not only because it’ll be the final time she puts on a Wildcatz uniform, but because she’ll be saying goodbye to her second family.
“It’s been a short four years, but I’ve grown a lot along the way,” she said.
In years past, the start of track season would begin in February and it would go on until the end of May. This year’s season was cut down to four weeks, starting in April just days after the conclusion of the cross country season. There was one point in the year where she competed in two meets in the same week. Ruiz said it was nothing she couldn’t handle, but it wasn’t ideal when there was still a league championship on the line.
And for those who think competing in cross country and track is the same thing, Ruiz begs to differ. She said not only are the workouts completely different but getting up to a certain speed for a particular race is also a challenge.
“You want to be at your best and at your peak,” she said. “Trying to have to transition like that, that fast, it’s a little bit rocky.”
Ruiz placed fourth in 18 minutes, and 6 seconds at the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League cross country championships on March 25. She finished second (11:19.70) in the 3,200-meter race and fifth (5:17.15) in the 1,600 at the league’s track and field finals on April 24.
Ruiz played multiple sports growing up and it was her drive to always be the fastest person on the playing field. Her dad would go on morning jogs and she begged him to go along.
“I guess you can say in a way I grew up liking to run,” she said.
Rob Cornett, coach of the cross country and track team, said he recalls the first time Ruiz showed up to cross country tryouts for the 2017 season. He vividly remembers the effort was there, but he was still cautious about his expectations for her. It wasn’t until she started competing in the meets that Cornett saw her true potential.
“She fit the bill right off,” he said.
As a freshman in 2017, Ruiz set the school record (18:27) for the CIF State Cross Country Championships at Woodward Park in Fresno. The previous mark was held by Martha Luna (19:16), who set the record nearly 30 years ago in 1989. She was named All-CCS Second Team, All-NorCal Third Team and NorCal Freshman Runner of the Year.
“We knew the record was going to be broken,” Cornett said.
In 2018, she set the school record (18:45.8) for the CCS cross country championships at Toro Park in Salinas, breaking a record set by former teammate Daniela Salazar (19:42) in 2017. She was named All-CCS Second Team.
Ruiz also set new records that year in track in the 3,200 and 1,600, finishing in 11:01.53 and 5:09.22 respectively. Both records were also held by Luna, who set them in 1990.
Ruiz said it was humbling to break records that were set 30 years ago, but she hopes that hers don’t stand there for too long.
“I want someone from our community to come in and be good, and hopefully use me as some sort of inspiration or something,” she said.
As a junior in 2019, Ruiz recorded the second fastest time (18:49) in program history at Crystal Springs Cross Country Course, which used to be home to the CCS championships. She finished a second behind the school record set by Betty Wilson (18:48) in 1979, who was also a junior at the time.
This season she clocked in the second fastest time (2:22.15) in the 800, which is eight seconds behind Salazar’s (2:14.85) record-breaking mark.
Cornett said he can talk about her accomplishments as an athlete all day long, but it’s the way she goes about her daily routine that impresses him.
“There’s only 24 hours in a day and she uses 30 of these hours,” he said.
Ruiz spent most of her senior year in the distance learning curriculum as students were forced to learn remotely when schools shut down in March 2020. Cornett commended her for staying on top of her academics, producing well above a 4.0 grade point average, as well as staying alert on what’s happening on campus.
Ruiz was vocal about what she believed was right, including during one of the school’s town hall meetings in which she expressed her concerns with the stadium renovations during this shortened Covid-19 track season.
The goal for Cornett has always been to build strong individuals, not just athletes.
“I’d like to hope that we had a little bit of help with that but I’m sure her parents had a lot to do with that,” he said. “Her work ethic is just amazing.”