Joe Herrera has been one of the Central Section's elite track and field athletes over the last two seasons.
During his sophomore 2012 campaign, the Tulare Western star accomplished the rare feat of winning the boys' 100-meter, 200-meter and 400-meter titles at the East Yosemite League Championships.
In his junior season last year, Herrera established himself as one of the state's top 400-meter runners. He was the only Tulare County boys athlete to capture a gold medal at the CIF Central Section Championships, winning the 400 meters (48.63 seconds), and he went on to an eighth-place finish at the CIF State Championships.
But the recruiting trail for Herrera wasn't filled with scholarship offers or calls from interested college coaches.
So he decided to take matters in his own hands.
And boy did Herrera's efforts ever pay off handsomely.
Herrera landed a track scholarship to UCLA, becoming the first student-athlete from Tulare to earn a track scholarship to a Pac-12 school in over a generation.
"It's an awesome achievement for him and for our other athletes to look up to," Tulare Western coach Tony Rodriguez said. "It says a lot about what he does on the track and what he does in the classroom. It's his dream school."
UCLA was his dream school, but Herrera's vision of "reality" when he was a sophomore was ending up at an NCAA Division II school.
His aspirations started to change after he saw his times in the 200 and 400 rank amongst the best in the state -- Herrera wanted a scholarship at a top NCAA program.
However, the opportunities were scarce. He had received a scholarship offer from Cal State Fullerton, but he was not hearing from the big schools.
"I was a little [frustrated], but I knew if I did my best, the opportunities would open up," Herrera said.
If the top track programs in the state weren't going to contact him, he would take the first step. Herrera, who is an honor-roll student at Tulare Western, wrote e-mails to UCLA's and California's head track coaches in the fall.
UCLA's Mike Maynard responded, and the two kept in contact. Then one night while eating dinner with his father and siblings at Wimpy's, Herrera received an e-mail from UCLA offering a partial scholarship.
"It was a shock. I couldn't believe it," Herrera said.
But that was only the start of UCLA's serious courting of Herrera.
Herrera turned himself into one of the state's most coveted track-and-field recruits with his performance at the California Indoor Championships last month in Fresno. Herrera set a meet record with a time of 1:14.08 in the 600-yard race.
UCLA coaches kept tabs on Herrera's outing, and they made it known that they were impressed.
"[After the indoor meet], they asked me what it would take for me to sign. I told them I had an offer for tuition and books from Cal State Fullerton, and they said they would do the same thing," Herrera said.
"[Offering tuition] was huge for him and his family," Rodriguez said.
Herrera accepted the offer, and UCLA announced his signing last month.
"It's crazy. It's taken a lot of hard work, and a lot of support from my coaches," Herrera said. "[Tulare Western boys coach Traion Baker] worked hard last year getting me ready, and it paid off."
Herrera said his family is thrilled.
"They're really proud. They know they raised me right. They're really happy," Herrera said.
At UCLA, Herrera will be working with some of the world's best 400-meter coaches. Jack Henry Johnson worked with Olympic-level athletes during his decorated tenure at USC, and long-time UCLA assistant Bob Kersee is a coaching legend in the sport -- having coached his wife Jackie Joyner-Kersee to a couple of Olympic gold medals in the heptathlon, and was the personal coach of 2012 Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix.
"Joe is a special athlete, and he's a special human being. He's got a great family, he's a great kid, and he's a great student," Rodriguez said. "He didn't get the offers he wanted, so he took it upon himself to do something and it paid dividends. UCLA really, really likes him."
Booker notches Azusa Pacific scholarship: Herrera wasn't the only Tulare Western athlete track and field athlete to earn a scholarship. Cyinna Booker, one of Tulare County's top female athletes, was awarded a scholarship to attend Azusa Pacific, an NCAA Division II program. Booker, who is bidding to become the first Tulare Western girl to qualify for the CIF State Championships for four straight years this season, will take part in the long and triple jumps at Azusa Pacific.
"Just like Joe, she's an outstanding student and an outstanding athlete. She's a 4.0 student," Rodriguez said. "We've had some talented kids go on to college [for track] over the last 20 years, and it all starts in the classroom. The classroom is the No. 1 thing for any of these athletes that go on to college. It shows that if you can get it done [in the classroom], these opportunities are available."