SALINAS — With a day off after a short but focused week of practice, Layla Ruiz ate a solid meal, did some homework and went to bed earlier than usual.
As her head hit the pillow roughly 14 hours before Saturday’s Central Coast Section championships, only one thought was running through her mind.
“Tomorrow’s the day,” Ruiz said.
What a day it was.
Watsonville High’s star freshman runner took third in the CCS Division I race with a time of 19 minutes, 6 seconds to not only solidify herself as one of the top young runners in the section but also become the first female Wildcat to advance to the California Interscholastic Federation state meet since Consuelo Mata did so in 2000.
She won’t be alone on the road trip to Woodward Park in Fresno on Nov. 25. Watsonville senior Daniela Salazar also advanced to the state meet, stunning several runners over the final half mile to take the division’s final individual qualifying spot.
She finished 10th in 19:41.9.
“I’m just overwhelmed with how well they did,” said Watsonville coach Rob Cornett. “I’m not ever putting it past them. I know they can do that but to do it at this time was good.”
Physically drained following the hilly 3-mile Toro Park course, Ruiz collapsed into the arms of assistant coach Crystal Ramirez after crossing the finish line seconds behind Los Altos High junior Naomi Donovan and Homestead High senior Rebecca Hasser, whom finished first (18:52.4) and second (18:59.8), respectively, in the D-I race.
After finding her bearings, Ruiz was greeted by dozens of teammates, friends and family, including her sweat-soaked father, Serafin, who sprinted from view points throughout the course to cheer her on through the pain.
“I’m excited and I just can’t believe I accomplished it,” said Ruiz, visibly overcome with the emotion and still feeling the effects of the race.
Ruiz was one week removed from becoming Watsonville’s first female league champion since 1989 on the same course and proved that her championship run was no fluke by hanging with the best runners the division had to offer. She sat in seventh at the midway point but hit another gear down the stretch to finish in the top three with the second fastest time of any freshman in the CCS on the day.
“I was just trying put everything I had into that last 200 meters,” Ruiz said. “I knew there was people behind me and my goal was to go to state. I knew that if I wanted to do that I would have to keep pushing.”
Salazar also found a second wind near the finish. She was 14th at the midway point and dropped a couple more spots before the start of the third mile. But she hammered away on the final loop, passing up a handful of runners to steal the final qualifying spot.
“I just ran as hard as I could,” Salazar said. “I looked back, which I don’t really do but I was kind of scared that they were going to out-kick me. I felt like I was going to collapse at the end but I survived.”
Cornett dished a massive amount of credit to his fellow coach Tony Roman, who missed Saturday’s race because of work but laid out the plan for the week of practice.
“Our girls had a strange focus this week, which was good,” Cornett said. “Tony’s got the plan…It’s all scripted since the beginning of the year. Everything worked. The girls took it to heart. They had a great week of practice.”
In the Division III race, Aptos High continued its yearly dominance.
The Mariners captured their seventh straight CCS team title. They finished with a score of 27, placing their scoring five within the top 13 runners.
Senior Marea Zlatunich led the sea of blue in second (18:22.0), senior Sofia Natividad was fourth (19:20.2), freshman Susana Estrada place seventh (19:51.2), sophomore Ruth Conneely took 11th (20:04.6) and sophomore Abby Watkins completed the Mariners’ score in 13th (20:09.5).
Sophomore Kailea Zlatunich (15th, 20:12.2) and senior Annika Niles (43rd, 21:31.1) also ran for Aptos, which last week stunned Santa Cruz High to win its sixth straight Santa Cruz Coast Athletic League title.
St. Ignatius finished in a distant second with 109 points.
Zlatunich was unable to defend her individual section title. Live Oak High senior Kaylah Grant posted the ninth fastest time ever on the Toro Park course at 17:49 to take the individual crown.
“I wanted to win but Kaylah ran a really good race and I’m really happy for her,” said Zlatunich, who last year bested Grant for the D-III title. “I’ll have to save it for state, I guess.”
Zlatunich, who was fourth in the state meet last season and also qualified for the Foot Locker National Championships, and Co. will try to reach the podium for the third straight season at Woodward Park in two weeks’ time.
“I think there’s still a shot that we can get top three,” said Aptos head coach Dan Gruber. “If we run like we have been consistently in the last two races, we have a good shot.”
Added Zlatunich: “Third year in a row, that would be really cool; going out senior year with a podium spot. This is a really special team. I really want them all to feel what it really is to stand up on that podium.”
North Monterey County High fell just a few points short of joining Watsonville’s duo and the Mariners in Fresno.
The Condors took fourth in the D-III race with 122 points. Sacred Heart Cathedral was third with 116.
Only the top three in the division advanced.
Junior Faith Mora and freshman Cristal Baeza finished back-to-back in 17th (20:57.3) and 18th (20:36.6) but the rest of the Condors were all out of the top 30.
Pajaro Valley High freshman Karen Martinez was 72nd (23:05.9) in D-III.
St. Francis High took fifth in the Division V race.
Sharks’ sophomore Camryn Ryan led the team in 13th (21:27.1).
Monte Vista Christian qualified as a team to the Division IV race but did not field a full team on Saturday.
Sophomore Sophia Willoughby paced the Mustangs in 22nd (21:15.9).