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Having already survived three stern tests, LaSalle is No. 1 among large schools in the first Buffalo News Poll of the season.

At least for a day.

The Explorers (5-0) put their ranking on the line at 7:30 tonight when they host No. 2 Nichols (3-0) in the championship game of the Niagara Frontier League Kickoff Invitational. LaSalle, the three-time defending News Poll champion, has lost the tournament final each of the last two years.

LaSalle garnered seven of nine first-place votes and 88 of a possible 90 points to lead the balloting. Among small schools, Olean is the season's first No. 1, earning five of seven first-place selections and 65 of 70 points.

LaSalle began its season Nov. 29-30 by opening eyes around the state as senior point guard Modie Cox sparked wins over Albany and Syracuse Nottingham in the Corning Cup Classic at Albany. Last Friday, the Explorers dumped No. 4 Niagara Falls, 58-46, in the NFL semis.

LaSalle finished last season 20-4, dropping a gut-wrenching, 44-43 decision in triple overtime to Rochester East in the Far West Regionals. That loss prevented coach Pat Monti's Explorers from making a third straight trip to the state tournament in Glens Falls.

Nichols, the defending State Class C Federation champion, opened with routs of Tonawanda and Lockport before struggling past Governor Simcoe (Ont.), 67-64, in Friday's semifinals. The Vikings returned four key players from last year's team, and also are benefiting from the play of 6-foot-7 Bob Fitzgibbons, who missed most of last year with a broken leg.

St. Joe's finished third in the balloting, just ahead of Niagara Falls. Msgr. Martin Association rival St. Francis is seventh, while Canisius and Timon narrowly missed the top 10.

A team most voters agree will quickly move up is No. 8 Kensington, the defending Section VI Class B champion. The Knights' current ranking is a product of their season not beginning until today when they travel to Seneca.

Olean (3-0) has bombed Allegany and Pioneer and dumped Bradford (Pa.). The Huskies continue to be led by senior forward Dean Edwards, a Butler University signee who is averaging almost 25 points per game this season.

Defending State Class C public school finalist Traditional, last year's poll champ, is second after dropping a 61-59 decision to Grover Cleveland in Saturday's final of the Al Pastor Memorial Tournament at Memorial Auditorium.

Some minor changes have been made to this year's poll alignments. Foremost is that all schools in Division III of the Erie County Interscholastic Conference are now considered large schools.

Springville, Williamsville South and Cheektowaga had been "small" in previous years. But their enrollments now are almost identical to division rival Lackawanna, a perennial large school contender, and it no longer was feasible to consider them small schools because they play in what essentially is a large-school league.

Riverside and Turner/Carroll, both Class C schools, have moved to the small school division. Riverside joins Yale Cup Class C teams Buffalo Arts, Burgard, Traditional, City Honors and Emerson as small schools.

The members of The News Poll committees are:

LARGE SCHOOLS -- Coaches Dave Byron of Lancaster, Gil Licata of Canisius, Marv Matteson of Kenmore East, Bob Mitchel of Kensington and Pat Monti of LaSalle, and officials Mike Binkowski, Ben Bluman, Jim Huetter and Paul Lisacchi, members of Board 53 of the Western New York Officials Association.

SMALL SCHOOLS: Coaches Joe Cardinal of Traditional, Larry Lash of Newfane and Dave Polechetti of Fredonia; retired Alden coach Tom Cowan; CCIAC Division I sports information director Mike Retchless; Curt Raymond, former coach and athletic director at Silver Creek, and official Joe DeCerbo, president of IAABO Board 39.

Mt. Mercy takes Pastor title

In girls basketball, Mt. Mercy took the season's first big tournament Saturday with a 38-31 win over Villa Maria in the championship game of the Al Pastor Memorial at Memorial Auditorium. The victory gave Mt. Mercy the title for the third straight year.

Senior guard Darlene Heisler earned most valuable player honors after single-handedly breaking a 31-31 tie in the final two minutes. Heisler turned three steals into baskets as Mt. Mercy scored the game's final seven points.

"We went to some 1-3-1 full-court press," explained Mt. Mercy coach Bob Torgalski. "It was our style. She's so quick and that was the difference."

Mt. Mercy also got 11 points from junior forward Jennifer Willis in the final and solid work in both games from senior Heidi Haller, who had 16 points, 14 assists and nine steals in the tournament.

"There was a little more pressure on our younger girls (five freshmen and only three seniors on a 15-player squad) because we've won the tournament before," Torgalski said. "But we have a lot of good players. And it's a good rivalry we have with Villa, too (in the Msgr. Martin Association). That's why it was a great game."

Another girls showdown takes place at 7:30 tonight when Lockport hosts Holy Angels in the final of the NFL girls tourney.

The Lady Lions now are coached by former Starpoint boys mentor Bill Shaw, who took over when long-time coach Pete Dickinson joined Sal Buscaglia's staff at the University at Buffalo. They beat Kenmore West and Orchard Park to advance to the final. Holy Angels has bested Lewiston-Porter and Niagara Falls.

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