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Running is more than a sport
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For Maritza Garcia, cross-country running is far more than just a fall sport.

While still a sophomore, she was the lead runner on the Riverbank High School girls team during the 2004 season, leading her group to the State Meet. Now, she has received a letter from the University of California at Los Angeles expressing interest in her athletic abilities.

"Running could be my ticket out of here. It could get me to college," she said. Maritza, who has an average 3.3 grade point average, is one of those students referred to as an athlete-scholar.

"I see people coming out of RHS. They've lived here their whole life. They stay here. I want to experience new things, go to new places. Life is short."

For her to do that, she will have to find her own financial means. The Garcia family is not positioned to help her finance a college education.

Born in Mexico, both her parents work in the Hunt Wesson cannery in Oakdale, and have done so for more than 20 years. In addition to Maritza, they have a son, now 25 and out-of-school and four daughters. Of the daughters, three are married and one is in college.

The letter from UCLA made no promises of a scholarship or anything else, says the RHS student, but it did state that the college coaches would be following her high school career as a runner, especially when she reaches her senior year.

That's why Maritza sees the potential laying in her athletic ability.

Running already has changed her life. During 7th grade at Cardozo Middle School, she was receiving Fs in her studies. Then teachers and coaches Penny Bartholomew and Amy Switzer got her interested in basketball and track. Because of that, her grades during her last year improved considerably. The desire to continue her sports activities spurred her on to do better in academic areas.

On arrival at RHS, she joined a young but exceptionally talented girls cross country team that won the league title, the division championship and went all the way to the State Meet. This has inspired her even more. At the State meet this season, the team took eighth place, and Maritza received fifth in individual competition.

She is now the only sophomore on a team of juniors whose goal is to win first place at the State Meet before they graduate.

Other members of this very tight-knit team are Brettany and Asia Harrison, Bianca Melchor, Angelica Duarte, Tiffany Lackey and Georgina Arnold. Their coach is Jeep Oliveira, who also coaches track at Cardozo Middle School and has known most of the girls on the team since they were in 8th grade.

"Why do I run? Because of the girls, the friendship between us, and because I've found something I'm good at," said Maritza.

"I love running. I see other teams just show up for practice. That's all they do. We work together 24-7. We go to movies together, have dinner together, do everything together."

They also practice running together, generally twice a day every day.

"I wake at 5 or 5:30. and I am out running on River Road with the others by 6 a.m. Then we run again in the afternoon, from school." she said. "In the morning we put in the distance and in the afternoon, we do speed work, often running to Escalon and back."

Garcia has the courage and determination to overcome obstacles. She tried playing basketball in her freshman year and badly sprained her ankle. Then, while running in this year's sub-sections, she stepped in a hole, fell heavily and damaged her ankle again. But she came back for the section finals a week later, and now is sticking to just running.

Maritza is confident she can beat her arch rivals, such as Escalon's Amanda Moreno.

"I know I can succeed. I know that in my head. But I have to believe more in me, I have to have confidence," she said.

Oliveira also says his main concern with Maritza is convincing her she is as good as he knows she is.

She is the only girl in RHS sports history ever to be named All District, he said, and placed fifth at the Footlocker Meet.

This event concludes the high school cross-country season, and is bigger even than the State Meet. It draws runners from all the western states from California and Nevada to Washington and Hawaii. Schools do not send teams, but their best runners compete as individuals.

News Editor John Branch may be contacted at 847-3021 or