It started off as one of the more uncomfortable conversations Monica Ruelas has ever had. Last November, the former Gilroy High and Hartnell College running standout received a call from Michael Freiss, the respected and venerable University of Alaska-Anchorage cross country and track and field coach who announced his retirement on June 4.
When Freiss made a scholarship offer to Ruelas—who at the time was pondering another offer from another program that wanted an answer within days—she had no choice but to ask how much money Alaska was offering in the scholarship package. After all, like any recruit, Ruelas wouldn’t be doing her due diligence if she didn’t have a scholarship comparison.
“I felt uncomfortable because this is not the type of conversation I’m having with people everyday or ever,” she said. “I had to kind of pressure coach and ask him up front because this other school needed an answer. I had to tell him what I needed, and he kind of had a little laugh with me, which made things easier. … I’m really excited. I never pictured Alaska as ever being an option because it’s Alaska (far away) and because they have such a good running program.”
Once Ruelas heard the numbers, the next step was to take a visit to the school in January. On the visit, Ruelas felt a sense of calm and peace in choosing Alaska as her next destination.
“Coach Freiss made me comfortable enough to trust him that I could come move over there and benefit as a runner and student,” said Ruelas, who will run cross country and track for Alaska. “After that trip I was so excited to start the next new chapter in my life.”
The last two years at Hartnell have proven to be one of the biggest maturation periods for Ruelas, on and off the course/track. Ruelas’ freshman season was marred by a lack of confidence, and she came close to calling it quits on her running career during the cross country season. However, Ruelas stuck things out, and her recently completed sophomore year in cross country and track and field was a complete 180 degree turnaround.
In cross country—Ruelas’ best sport—she earned All-American honors with a sixth-place finish in the California Community College State Championships.
“That was my best race because never did I think I would get All-American,” she said. “That was crazy. The women’s team also placed second as a team, so in that sense we were all proud for the hard work we put in and to have that moment right there. As Coach Z (Hartnell coach Chris Zepeda) said you’ll come back here with some of your teammates in 10 years for the school’s Hall of Fame and relive that moment again.”
On the track, Ruelas competed in all of the mid to long distance events, from the 800 meters to the 10,000 meters (6.2 miles). She has personal-records of 2:21.48 in the 800, 4:52.46 in the 1500, 18:03.55 in the 5,000 (3.1 miles) and 39:28.30 in the 10,000. It was her performance in the 5,000 at the Mike Fanelli Track Classic on March 30 that Ruelas was particularly proud of, as she came close to hitting her goal time of 17:59, something she once thought impossible.
“That was my best race,” she said. “It didn’t start until 10:40 p.m., and I remember sitting there the whole time in anticipation wanting to get out there and run. It was just Coach Z, mom and I because it was 10’o clock at night. I’m truly proud of that time, and it’s pretty crazy to think I did that because in my freshman year I was struggling just to stay in the 19 (minute range).”
Ruelas’ huge improvement from her freshman year to her sophomore season resulted in three race wins during the cross country season and four first-place finishes this past season on the track. What was once foreign territory for Ruelas—staying with the leaders and finishing up front—became a somewhat common occurrence. When Ruelas entered Hartnell, she was raw and far from a finished product.
She’ll enter Alaska as a more refined and confident runner, and yet because Alaska is a highly competitive Division II program, Ruelas will be fighting to earn the No. 5 or 6 position on the cross country team.
“I will come in and play my role and learn from all the other girls because they have some really fast times,” Ruelas said.
Even though Anchorage is a long way from home—Ruelas previously lived in Gilroy but resides now in Hollister—she knew going far away from home for college would serve her well.
“The main reason I chose Alaska is because of something I learned throughout my two years at Hartnell,” she said. “Without getting out of my comfort zone, I won’t be able to learn something new, and to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. I feel this next experience will help me grow as a student, person and athlete.”
Ruelas was emotional when Hartnell had a ceremonial letter of intent signing two weeks ago, finalizing all of the hard work that it took to get to this point.
“There were a couple of tears for sure,” she said. “I had my teammates, my coach and my family there, and it was getting ready to say goodbye. I’m kind of scared for that to be honest because I know I’m going to miss them.”
Ruelas will be missed, too.