Aisling Cuffe (left) and Lukas Verzbicas were honred this week as gatoade Cross Country Runners of the Year. Photo: Kurt Hoy/Competitor
Aisling Cuffe (left) and Lukas Verzbicas were honred this week as Gatorade National Cross Country Runners of the Year. Photo: Kurt Hoy/Competitor

The nation’s two top high school harriers were honored this week.

In its 26th year of honoring the nation’s best high school athletes, The Gatorade Company, in collaboration with ESPN RISE, announced Lukas Verzbicas of Carl Sandburg High School (Orland Park, Ill.) as its 2010-11 Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year.  Also the 2009-10 Gatorade National Boys Cross Country Runner of the Year, Verzbicas was surprised with the news earlier this week by professional distance runner Alan Webb, the 2005 U.S. National Champion in the 1,500-meter run, who earned Gatorade National Boys Track & Field Athlete of the Year honors in 2000-01.

The 6-foot senior won his second consecutive national Foot Locker Cross Country Championship with a time of 14:59, and also captured the Nike Cross Nationals Final title in 15:59.2, becoming the first prep runner to ever win both events in the same season.  A two-time Class 3A state champion and competitive triathlete, Verzbicas was undefeated this past cross country season, also earning victories at the NXN Midwest Regional championships, the Foot Locker Midwest Regional championships, the Southwest Suburban Conference Championships, the Lockport Sectional Championships and the Nike Northside-Southside Challenge.

Verzbicas, who accelerated his academic course load in order to graduate high school in three years, has maintained a 3.25 GPA in the classroom. Recently voted News Media & Publishing “2010 Best American Lithuanian” by online ballot, he is a devoted parishioner of the Blessed Jurgis Matulaitis Lithuanian Catholic Mission community and has volunteered locally mentoring youth triathletes and runners on behalf of the Multisport Madness Triathlon Club.

“Lukas undoubtedly moved himself into the ultra-elite class of prep distance runners with an unbeaten and record-setting season, while heading up the deepest national class of harriers in memory,” said ESPN RISE/DyestatCal Editor Rich Gonzalez. “His unprecedented Nike Cross Nationals/Foot Locker double also establishes him as the sport’s first ever three-time national champion, and his career championship resume elevates him onto the same performance tier as two legendary preps, (two-time Gatorade State Track & Field Athlete of the Year winners) Dathan Ritzenhein and Chris Solinsky, one who has gone on to become an Olympian in the marathon and the other an American record-holder at 10,000 meters.”

On the girls side, Aisling Cuffe of Cornwall Central High School (New Windsor, N.Y.) was honored Gatorade National Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year.  Cuffe was surprised with the news in her living room by professional runner and Summer Games gold medalist Allyson Felix, who won the Gatorade National Girls Track & Field Athlete of the Year award in 2002-03, then captured Gatorade Female High School Athlete of the Year honors in 2003.

The 5-foot-4 senior enjoyed an unbeaten season and raced to the national title at the Foot Locker Cross Country Championships this past fall with a time of 16:53, breaking the tape 34 seconds ahead of her next-closest competitor. The state’s returning Gatorade Girls Cross Country Runner of the Year, Cuffe captured the Class A state title in 17:19.6 and won the all-class New York Federation Championship with a course-record time of 17:17. She added victories at the Great American Cross Country Festival, the Manhattan Invitational and the Foot Locker Northeast Regional championships (in 17:51).

Cuffe has maintained an A average in the classroom. A four-year member of the Cornwall Central Math Team and its returning high-scorer, Cuffe has donated her time to and fund-raised for multiple local and national community-service initiatives in association with her school’s Key Club chapter. Also a member of the National Honor Society, she has volunteered on behalf of area youth road races and track invitational meets.

Cuffe, who is just the third female student-athlete from the state of New York to ever win Gatorade National Player of the Year honors in any sport, has verbally committed to an athletic scholarship at Stanford University beginning this fall.