Last September when she was a freshman, Monica Ruelas watched her teammates get out fast at the Fresno Invitational and place two women in the top 14 and four in the top 20. The women's team surprised perennial powerhouses Mt. SAC and Glendale College for a 2 point win but the former runner from Gilroy High School left feeling she missed out on the experience. Fast forward a year, Ruelas has transformed herself into one of the most versatile runners in Northern California. Last spring, she qualified to the Northern California Championship in four events, the 800, 1500, 5000, and 10,000 meters. With new personal bests across the board, Ruelas approached this year's Fresno Invitational with a completely different mindset, one centered on becoming one of the best in the state. After 3.1 miles Saturday, Ruelas proved she is one of the best placing 2nd overall in a lifetime best 19:13, the highest placing and fastest early season time for a Lady Panther since 2015 when Malena Grover placed second in 18:52. Grover would go on to place third overall at the CCCAA State Championship in 18:06.
Ruelas was aggressive from the start leading a chase pack following Mt. SAC Rebecca Ruiz who would go on to the win in 18:49. Ruelas spearheaded a Lady Panther attack that placed five women in the top 14. Her 19:13 jumps Ruelas from 28th all-time to 6th best performer at Woodward Park. Only four Hartnell Lady Panthers have ever run the Woodward Park 5k course in under 19:00 minutes but Ruelas will have another chance come November at the CCCAA Championship as a legitimate contender for All-American honors. Following Ruelas was talented freshman Daniela Salazar. Salazar brings previous Woodward Park experience from her senior year but starts her Hartnell career with a lifetime best 19:38. That mark places her on the all-time list in 17th best. She may become the first true freshman since Malena Grover to eclipse the 19 minute barrier and earn back to back cross country All-American honors. Just behind Salazar the pair of Lauryn Orozco and Maria Aceves show why they will be tough to contend with come November by running within steps of each nearly the entire race. Orozco, who placed 16th last year in 20:04, followed Aceves much of the race before moving ahead to take 9th place overall in 19:51. She was the Lady Panthers highest placing runner in 31st at last fall's state championship and has an even better mark of 19:31 at Woodward Park to her credentials. Aceves stayed close to Orozco to placed 13th and earn top 14 honors. Her time of 19:57 is her first cross country 5km time under 20 minutes and makes her the 27th best performer in program history. Fellow sophomore Arlene Diaz Leal ran as high as fourth overall through 2 miles before losing ten spots but held on for the final medal spot in fourteenth in 20:07. She was 19:47 at Woodward Park last September giving the team five women with performances under 20:00 on the championship course prior to November. Freshman Isabelle Torres also enjoyed an impressive first outing finishing 21st (20:23) after running up in the top 14 for much of the race. Sophomore Nina Arias gave the ladies the final dagger at 29th in a new lifetime best 21:03, narrowly missing her first sub 21 performance. Freshman Nerina Campos provided added depth in 39th (21:36). The Lady Panthers tallied 42 points to outdistance the 2017 CCCAA Champions of Mt. SAC who ended with 50 points and in a tie-breaker with Glendale College who also amassed 50 points. With all three programs placing five women in the top 25 overall and the only three to score under 100 points, it demonstrates how closely matched all three are. For the second consecutive year, the win at the State Preview Meet should give the Lady Panthers early top ranking in the state.
The Lady Panthers will enjoy a bye week and won't compete again until Saturday, September 22 when they travel to Southern California for the CSU San Bernadino Coyote Challenge. There, they will face Glendale College for a rematch on a mostly grass, flat, fast course on the campus of CSU San Bernadino.