New Miss California builds on Merced County win

FRESNO -- More than 50 women came to compete, but only one could walk away Saturday wearing the crown as Miss California 2009.

Miss Yosemite Valley, 21-year-old Kristy Cavender of Orange, was chosen by judges to represent California in the storied Miss America Pageant next January in Las Vegas.

Cavender, a student at the University of Southern California, was the only contestant with Valley ties among the top-five finalists Saturday at the William Saroyan Theatre in downtown Fresno.

"I think everyone was chewing on their fingernails when they announced the top 10," said Linda Dash, the executive director of the Miss Merced County/Yosemite Valley program. "I just looked at her and thought, 'Oh my gosh, this little girl has the complete package.' "

And now, she has the crown to match.

Saturday's finals marked the culmination of four days of competition for the contestants and featured the top dozen women showing off their talent by dancing, singing and playing musical instruments; displaying their physical fitness in swimsuit competition and their glamour in evening wear. The top five also had to think on their feet by answering onstage questions posed by Miss California 2001 Stephanie Baldwin.

Cavender, who performed a dance to "Ave Maria," began her journey toward Miss California in January at Buhach Colony High School, where she was named Miss Yosemite Valley during a dual competition that also named Miss Merced County.

She is the first from that program to ever appear in the Miss American Pageant, Dash said.

"I kind of thought she had the possibility of pulling this off," Dash said. "She's very credible and she's very, very bright. She has communicative skills that...

"Wow, she's unreal. Like I said, she's the perfect package to send to Miss America. We're very excited for her."

Miss America Pageant is the largest scholarship program in the world for young women. Last year, the program awarded $45 million in scholarship and cash assistance to its contestants.

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