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Athlete Of The Year Uscanga Takes Top Honors As Outstanding Lady Bruin
If Lizzie Uscanga's successful running career doesn't lead her to a high-paying job in sports medicine or physical therapy, she can always look into a job as an Armed Forces recruiter.

In early fall of last year, the 2010 graduate scrambled to add depth to a Riverbank High girls cross country team after only two runners returned from the 2008-09 school year squad.

By the season's official start, Uscanga had convinced a solid portion of the Riverbank student body to join the Bruin harriers. Months later, the rag-tag group won a Trans-Valley League Title and finished fourth among all Division 5 teams in the Sac-Joaquin Section.

Uscanga's leadership went foot-and-foot with superb displays of athleticism in both cross country and track, leading to an easy selection as the Riverbank News' Lady Bruin Athlete of the Year.

"I have said this to several people, and I'm saying it now," Riverbank track and cross-country coach Monte Wood said. "Lizzy and (fellow senior Natalia Herrera) were the reasons why we won the TVL in cross country.

"Lizzie got girls to come out for the team, and she was able to encourage those runners as she was a tremendous leader."

But while Uscanga's vocal leadership proved to be a huge asset to both programs, her own competitive drive led Bruin runners to once again earn accolades as one of the best small running schools in the state.

She set a personal best at the Trans Valley League cross country finals with a 20:54 time at Legion Park in Modesto. Her time was good enough for third place honors among all TVL runners, and led the Bruins to a hotly contested league title.

"If you see Lizzie - she looks all sweet and nice - but she is just competitive, and hangs on to races like a bulldog," coach Wood said. "She may not be the most talented runner, but she has a competitive drive that most runners don't have, and you can tell she enjoys running."

Uscanga picked up cross country and track her sophomore year and immediately developed a passion for the sports, despite early struggles in adjusting to each grueling race pace.

"I started off at the bottom of the pack and I worked my way up," Uscanga said. "Even if you don't feel like you are good enough to run at first, just keep trying, because that's what paid off for me."

In track, Uscanga's efforts went a long way toward runner-up TVL honors for a Bruin program that was unable to finish the season with their top sprinter in action.

She set a personal record with a 5:46.38 mile to finish third in league and was also second in the 3200 meter race at 12:53.45. The speedy times qualified her to the 13-league Division III championships, where she bested her league finals 3200 time by over 24 seconds to finish eighth overall. She out-kicked Hughson's Aubrey Fisher (TVL champion) by over five seconds to nab the league's fastest time in the event.

"Sometimes you are afraid to tell a kid 'I need you to come through' just before an important event, but I could always go to Lizzie and tell her I needed a big race," coach Wood said. "She is just a gutsy performer."

Uscanga's prep accolades earned the attention of the Stanislaus State track and field program, but she will take her career to Cuesta College in San Luis Obispo. Her former Bruin teammates, Tayler Anderson and Kari Duarte already compete for the Cougars in the Western States (community college) Conference.

It will be a drastic change for the successful Bruin athlete, but Uscanga is certainly ready for one more challenge.

"I will miss my coaches and teammates a lot, because running was my everything in high school," Uscanga said. "Between leadership stuff, homework or practice, I practically lived at school.

"But I'm really excited to be an adult on my own and I'm ready to take on bigger responsibilities."

Next week, look for the honored male Athlete of the Year.