Leila Aruri knew she had big shoes to fill this fall.
The junior was, after all, being asked to take over as the top runner for Andover cross country, inheriting the role from record-setting two-time All-Scholastic Maggie Mullins.
She could have been overwhelmed by the expectations, but instead Aruri has excelled for the Golden Warriors this season.
After an injury scare that left her on the sidelines for the last two dual meets, Aruri is ready to continue that success in the postseason, which kicks off with the Merrimack Valley Conference meet on Saturday.
“I can’t wait,” she said. “I wanted to be sure that I was ready for Saturday. I feel like I have really prepared myself to be successful in the big meets this season.”
Aruri began to emerge as a star last season. She placed eighth at MVCs and seventh at the EMass. Division 1 meet, forming an outstanding 1-2 punch with Mullins. And after playing basketball in the winter, she followed that up with an impressive outdoor track season that including a second in the two-mile at the Andover Boosters Meet.
But, this summer, she took her training to a whole new level.
“In the summer before my freshman and sophomore year I didn’t really train much,” she said. “I was just getting into running. I felt like I was getting tired at the end of seasons. So I worked hard at all the captains’ practices and did races to work on my speed. I feel like that could help me in the big meets.”
But, just over a week ago, during a dominant dual meet campaign, Aruri thought her season could be over.
“I started to have a lot of pain in my leg,” she said. “The doctors said I could have a stress fracture. The word ‘stress fracture’ really made me nervous. I had worked so hard to be ready for this season. I didn’t want it to be over right when the biggest meets were coming.”
Aruri ended up sitting out the final two dual meets of the season, but after being checked out by doctors she was given the go-ahead to return to workouts.
“I had an MRI to be sure,” she said. “It showed I was OK. They think it’s just because my growth plates are open. It still hurts some, but I am just resting when I need to and I am ready to go.”
Despite the mid-season bump, her coach knows that she will be ready to go for the postseason meets.
“Leila is one of the most focused and dedicated runners I have ever had,” said Golden Warriors head coach Leo Lafond. “Maggie is the best female distance runner in the history of this school. But Leila is equally talented in her own right.”
Aruri said the opportunity to run with Mullins, who is now competing for Boston College, taught her a great deal about how to approach running and competition.
“Myself and the rest of the team learned so much from her,” she said. “I learned about how to run, and I also learned from some things she struggled with. She had a lot of pressure on her and I saw how nervous it made her.
“She was so humble and I think she set the precedent for the way the team is going. She taught us so much, so when others had to step up they would know how to deal with the pressure.”
Aruri now hopes to make those lessons pay off against the best in the state.
“There are some great runners in the MVC, so we will see what happens this weekend,” said Aruri, whose best times is 19:19 over 3.1 miles. “I definitely enjoyed EMass last year (at Boston’s Franklin Park). I feel like that was one of the first times I really fulfilled my expectations.
“Even though I am a junior I still feel like I’m learning about running. This season has gone very well so far. My expectations changed a little with the injury, but I want to do as well as I can the rest of the way.”
Lafond has confidence she will excel with the pressure on.
“She has a real determination,” said her coach. “She is at her best in he big races. She is a great kid and a very dedicated, talented runner.”
David Willis is a sportswriter/videographer for The Andover Townsman.