Watsonville High graduate Ruben Mora, who competed in football, wrestling and track was named the Pajaronian's Boys Athlete of the Year for the 2023-24 school year. (Juan Reyes/The Pajaronian)

No pain, no gain. 

It’s an idiom often used by athletes for motivation during some of the most grueling moments of their lives.

Watsonville High graduate Ruben Mora had his fair share of those moments while donning a Wildcatz uniform. Whether it was overcoming injuries or adversity, he continuously found a way to get back on his feet to compete.

Of the many student-athletes who excelled at an individual level in the area, it was a difficult task to single out just one.

However, what separated Mora from the rest of the pack was his ability to still dominate in football, wrestling and track despite battling severe pain amidst those lingering injuries.

His efforts and determination for the love of athletics didn’t go unnoticed, which is why The Pajaronian is naming Mora the Boys Athlete of the Year for the 2023-24 school year.

“Honestly it means the world to me,” Mora said. “I put my heart and soul into all my athletics. With all my personal struggles and still receiving this award it’s amazing. I feel very honored.”

Despite his physical limitations from a broken rib he suffered during his sophomore year and tedious hamstring issues, Mora earned All-Pacific Coast Athletic League Mission Division First Team honors as a defensive lineman for the football team. He finished with 45 tackles and five sacks, and was selected to play in the 38th Annual Central Coast 2023 All-Star High School Football Game at Rabobank Stadium in Salinas on Jan. 20.

“It was hard to breathe at times and I couldn’t really turn side to side, it would hurt. I was in excruciating pain for a long time,” Mora said.

Aside from his indomitable mindset to perform to the best of his ability—no matter the sport—his strength in the weight room served as one of his greatest assets.

Weighing just 150 pounds, Mora was able to bench press 230 pounds, squat 385, and deadlift 475—making him one of the strongest pound-for-pound athletes in Santa Cruz County.

His journey started at 7 years old. Mora picked up a love for athletics through baseball and soccer, which quickly grew into something more to him.

Before every game, he would pray with his family for his physical safety knowing he put that in jeopardy every time he stepped out onto the field.

“The motivation was my family,” he said. “Very easily my family. And my pride.”

Mora hadn’t planned on returning to play football his senior year. But his mother, Esther Loera, was pregnant during his junior season and he was determined to let her walk him onto the field during Senior Night.

“To be honest, football was never really my sport,” Mora said. “I did love it though.”

Mora was substantially undersized as a defensive lineman as he routinely went up against players more than 100 pounds heavier than him. Yet, he applied the skills from other sports to grow into a dynamic, fast and powerful lineman that gave him the edge in many circumstances.

“Ruben is a great example of the benefits of being a three-sport athlete,” Watsonville Athletic Director Mark Northcutt said. “He used the benefits of each sport to help him get better in another sport. Although Ruben was not a typical football player, he utilized his wrestling and track experience to become the fastest and most effective defensive end in the league.”

Of the three sports in which Mora competed, wrestling was by far the most difficult to endure through his lingering injuries.

But it was also his favorite.

Mora finished with a 5-0 record in Cypress Division dual meets and went on to win the 144-pound weight class division championship. He placed fourth at the PCAL Boys Wrestling Championships that took place inside his home gymnasium.

Mora’s father, Ruben, played a huge role in his life; inspiring him with his stories of wrestling at Fresno State.

“I always wanted to be like my dad,” Mora said. “So when my injuries came I thought about how he battled through his injuries and still managed to get so far in his career.”

Wrestling was the sport he envisioned himself going furthest in, and following his father’s footsteps. But he realized it’s also the most physically demanding and discovered his body couldn’t keep up. 

Mora felt a pop followed by extreme pain in his rib during his last match at the Central Coast Section Wrestling Championships. After he finished the match, he was carried off the mat but knew that he gave everything he had for the sport he loved. 

“[Mora] had the wrestling body type and the fundamentals,” Watsonville wrestling coach Josh Castillo said. “One of the skills that made him stand out was his ability to attack and explode, and the fearlessness of anything he attempts.”

Although Mora’s wrestling career came to an end, he still had the track season ahead of him in the spring. He competed in the 400 meter dash, 110 hurdles, 300 hurdles, 4×100 relay team, and was part of the 4×400 relay team that qualified for the CCS Track and Field semifinals.

“[Mora’s] a really raw athlete who tries to run through walls,” Watsonville track and field coach Rob Cornett said. “His go-to is to run as fast as he can. His mindset was always jumping with both feet. Whatever he’s going to do, he does it 100 percent.”

This season he pushed himself for multiple personal bests, including a 51.23-second finish in the 400 at Alisal High on April 10. 

Mora followed up with a 17.26 finish in the 110 hurdles at May 3’s PCAL Masters Meet, and finished the 300-meter hurdle race in 41.12 at the Avis Kelley Invitational on March 23 .

“I fell in love with track in my sixth grade year, and ever since then I’ve always dreamed of going to the Olympics,” Mora said. “That goal may be unattainable, but I definitely want to get as close to it as I can.”

Mora will continue his athletic career and compete for the Hartnell College track and field team in 2025. 

In the first 50 meters of the last race of his high school career, he went down grabbing the same hamstring which had been an issue all year.

In pain, Mora was carried off and realized the end of his high school journey had arrived. But knowing him, he’s only getting started for what lies ahead of him at Hartnell.

“It definitely didn’t end the way I wanted it to, but it makes for a hell of a story,” he said. “Ever since I was little I always wanted to go to Watsonville High. Other schools like Palma requested me to go. My friends were [at Watsonville] and I feel like I built my own family.”

Honorable mention

Matt Hood (Sr.), Aptos: Hood was the starting quarterback for the Mariners football team and a huge presence on the baseball squad that won the Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League crown.

As the quarterback, Hood completed 55% (43-of-78) of his pass attempts for 751 yards with eight touchdowns and eight interceptions. He also had 345 yards rushing on 78 carries with nine touchdowns.

Hood finished tied for a team-best 28 hits, including six doubles with four RBIs, 21 runs scored and six stolen bases for the Mariners baseball team. He also recorded nine strikeouts in 13 innings pitched.

Eddie Alvarez (Sr.), Aptos: Alvarez was instrumental in helping the Mariners boys’ soccer team capture the SCCAL crown this season. He scored a league-best 22 goals to go along with six assists. 

Alvarez’s golden foot also helped him become a place kicker on the football team, scoring 29 extra point attempts for Aptos.

Dominic Pierini (Jr.), Monte Vista Christian: Pierini set the all-time Santa Cruz County record for most passing yards in a single season with 3,057 to go along with 32 touchdowns. 

He surpassed former Watsonville High quarterback Jerry Alvarez who originally set the county record with 2,727 passing yards and 32 touchdowns in 2009. 

Pierini also set the county record for most passing yards in a single game with 486 against Watsonville High on Oct. 27, breaking a previous mark of 439 set by former MVC quarterback Josh Blanton in 2006.

On that night, Pierini also surpassed Blanton’s single-season school record of 2,570 passing yards, also set in 2006. 

Pierini had a solid 2023-24 season with the basketball team. He finished with 13 blocks, 28 steals, 45 assists, 103 rebounds and an average of 4.0 points per game in 25 games played for the Mustangs.

Nico Downie (Jr.), Monte Vista Christian: Downie had 1,258 yards receiving on 74 receptions with 14 touchdowns in 10 games played for the Mustangs football team.

Downie played a big role on the basketball team as he finished second with an average of 12.5 points per game. He also recorded 3.2 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.8 steals per contest this season. 

Ryan Salazar (Sr.), Pajaro Valley: The 5 foot, 7 inch, 145-pound Grizzly standout was a leader on both the boys’ basketball and volleyball teams.

Izaak Ocampo (Jr.), Pajaro Valley: Ocampo earned All-PCAL First Team Offense honors as the main receiver for the Grizzlies football team. He was also a standout on the track team, competing in both the 100- and 200-meters, and is a member of the 4×100 and 4×400 relay teams.

Ocampo also competed in the high jump and long jump events, placing second in the long jump at the PCAL Masters Meet in Pacific Grove on May 3.  

Micah Cervantes (Sr.), St. Francis: Cervantes helped the Sharks boys’ soccer team capture their first-ever league title in the program’s history.

He was also instrumental in getting the baseball team into the CCS playoffs following a 15 game win streak to close out the regular season.

The Cal State University East Bay commit batted a .446 (41-for-92) average with one home run, three triples, six doubles, 10 walks, 23 RBIs, 39 runs scored and 13 stolen bases for St. Francis.

Pedro Ibarra (Sr.), St. Francis: As the Sharks’ leading wide receiver, Ibarra finished with 337 yards receiving and 16 receptions with six touchdowns in 2023.

Ibarra followed up with a great season on the baseball team. The San Jose State University commit batted a .432 average (35-for-81) with three home runs, one triple, 10 doubles, 13 walks, 32 RBIs, 23 runs scored and 13 stolen bases. 

Nate Aguilar (Jr.), Watsonville: Aguilar took over starting quarterback duties and helped lead the Wildcatz football team to a 3-3 record in PCAL Mission Division-North play.

He was also a member of the boys’ basketball squad in the winter before moving on to both the track and field and baseball seasons in the spring.

Aguilar showed off his jumping skills by competing in the high jump, long jump and triple jump, and tested his throwing strength in the shot put event.

Editor’s note: Statistics provided by Monterey Bay Preps and MaxPreps websites, and coaches

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