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YOU'VE COME A LONG WAY...
GIRLS BASKETBALL HAS GROWN BY LEAPS AND (RE)BOUNDS SINCE WILLIAMSVILLE SOUTH WON FIRST SECTIONAL TOURNAMENT 25 YEARS AGO

The year was 1977 and the famous blizzard wasn't the only thing taking Western New York by storm.

High school girls basketball was plowing its way onto the local sports scene with the berth of the enrollment-based Section VI Tournament.

This year's tournament is the 25th, a fact that brought back fond memories for Julie McCullough, coach of the Williamsville South team that won the Class A title in that first year. The Billies finished 19-0, capped by a 46-45 win over Clarence in the sectional finals played at West Seneca East.

"We had a week off in the middle of the season because of the Blizzard, and some people weren't sure we'd be able to pick up where we left off," said McCullough.

All five starters on that team -- Judy Sherwin, Tricia Steele, Liz Rice, Sue Harter and Tammy Emerson -- went to college, and four continued their basketball careers. The 5-foot-11 Sherwin played at Temple.

The title was the second in a row for the Billies, who went 17-1 in 1976 to win the Class A large school crown led by seniors Dee Kelterborn and Patty Guthrie. In a sign of the times, Williamsville South's yearbook, the Searchlight, refered to the girls hoop team as the "Cagerettes" (rivaled only by the swimmers being called "Splasherettes").

McCullough was hired as a health and physical education teacher at South in 1970. As the coach of four sports at South, she said she didn't experience the typical battles for equality that coaches in her era did. Her only regret was a state tournament didn't start for girls until 1981.

"We felt equal to anyone else. We were so successful that we were looked at as being very accomplished and renowned," she said. "We never felt diminished. Under (administrators) Jim Rusin and Kevin Lester, girls are equal to boys."

McCullough retired as South's girls basketball coach after her second championship, citing a speech she had heard from legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, who said you should quit when you're still on top.

The sectional tournament has allowed several schools to showcase their programs. South, Sweet Home, Southwestern and Clymer enjoyed early success. Lockport has won 13 Class A titles, along with the 1994 state title. Clarence (Class A-2) and Pioneer (B-1) enjoyed stretches where they won four sectional titles in a row. Pine Valley put itself on the girls basketball map with nine Class D crowns and an impressive four state titles.

This year's Section VI field includes 80 teams vying for eight titles. Teams that keep winning will have a chance to compete for a state championship at the girls version of the big dance held each March in Troy. A generation ago, going to the dance was something you did after Friday night football games.

Girls basketball has enjoyed tremendous growth since it first became an interscholastic sport in the public schools in 1972-1973. Gone forever are the days of six games making a season, hand-me-down uniforms from the boys and no transportation to away games. Today's standards include 20-game regular seasons, regional and state playoffs, all-state and All-WNY teams, television coverage, the three-point shot and the women's-sized ball.

As the 25th annual tournament tips off tonight, here's a look at how the ball may bounce:

A-1: Jamestown seeded first

If anyone's entering the postseason on a roll it's No. 5 seed Kenmore West. The Blue Devils have won eight of their last nine, including the regular season finale against upstart Grand Island. Kenmore West has a tough quarterfinal game on Thursday with an NFL foe, No. 4 seed North Tonawanda, with whom they split with this season . . . With eight seniors on the roster, the future is now for No. 1 seed and ECIC I champion Jamestown. . . . No. 2 seed Clarence looks to return to the A-1 final led by seniors Jamie Vaughan and April Reger. The Red Devils handed Jamestown its only league loss. . . . No. 3 seed West Seneca West has a strong inside game with forward Jen Grabowski averaging a double-double. The Indians lost point guard Dana Raszeja to an ACL injury during practice last week. . . . Always-dangerous Lockport, the three-time defending Class A-1 champions, hosts Frontier tonight. Lady Lions center Allison Depp is coming off a 24-point night against Iroquois in Saturday's Lockport/Kiwanis Tournament. "Allison is picking it up a lot and also getting help from other players," said Lockport coach Bill Shaw. "It's taken all year, but our sophomores are starting to play."

A-2: Kenmore East unbeaten

No. 1 seed Kenmore East (20-0) is the only undefeated team in Western New York. The Bulldogs are solid favorites to win Class A and put to rest last year's painful loss to Williamsville East in the Class A-2 final. "Regular season wins are great, but the girls keep reminding themselves what happened last year," said coach Jack Blanch. "It's been a driving force this year, and the girls have been doing everything in their power not to let it happen again." . . . Hamburg earned the No. 3 seed with a 14-6 record, but is fighting an uphill battle with injuries to center Bethany Bauer (torn ACL), backup center Becky Williams (ankle) and point guard Stephanie Wlosinski (foot). . . .. Pioneer, with Rachel Hicks and Amanda Neamon providing the bulk of the offense, secured the No. 2 seed. The Panthers are chasing their first title since the days of Janelle Schiener in 1989.

B-1: Two toughies on top

No. 1 seed Williamsville East and No. 2 Iroquois are on a collision course to meet in the final. Both teams have been ranked in the state all season. Chiefs All-WNY guard Eva Cunningham gets until Thursday to rest the knee she hyperextended in the Lockport/Kiwanis Tournament. Iroquois returns all five starters from last year's Class B winner. . . . Grand Island, one of the section's surprise teams, hopes to interrupt Williamsville East's plans if they should meet in the semifinals. . . . If Grand Island (15-5) beats Lew-Port in its first-round game, it will tie the school record for wins in a season, joining the 1985 Section VI Class A champs who went 16-3. . . . No. 6 Tonawanda, which enjoyed a 15-win regular season, is led by Cheri White (15 ppg, 11 rpg). . . . No. 3 seed Lafayette, who put together an 11-game winning streak this season, has two girls averaging over 20 ppg -- senior Ashley Deas (25 ppg.) and freshman Shanika Johnson (21 ppg.).

B-2: Depew three-peat?

Depew looks to make it three Class B-2 titles in a row. Twins Joelle and Kristin Brunetto need to find the gear they were in during last year's tournament. The Wildcats' toughest challenge will come from Olean -- if the Huskies get by Springville, which upset them last year. The CCIAC I champions are a run-happy team averaging 60-plus points per game. . . . No. 2 seed East Aurora won its second consecutive ECIC IV title. A pair of 6-foot-1 players, Katie Shea and Jana Miller, keep the glass clear for the Blue Devils. . . . Fredonia could make some noise against East Aurora, if it gets past Medina. . . . Sarah DeVoe is a 6-1 center who moves well for No. 5 seed Newfane.

C-1: Bees buzzing

No. 1 seed Traditional is poised to win its second straight C-1 title. Dionne Turnage, who had 41 points against Lafayette last week, is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds. The speedy Germany Jackson is a matchup problem for teams. . . . No. 2 seed Wilson, carrying the banner for the Niagara-Orleans League, is in the favorable half of the bracket, and should reach the final.

C-2: Valley of good teams

No. 1 seed Cassadaga Valley is a senior-laden team whose time may have come. The threesome of Kay Martin, Amanda Balling and Chelsey Marsh is looking to lead the school to its first sectional title since 1994. . . . No. 4 seed Pine Valley is the defending Class C champs, and has proven that this is its favorite time of year.

D: Sherman looks sharp

This title runs through Sherman, the No. 1 seed and CCIAC III champions. Senior center Megan Damcott is averaging a double-double. Coach Mel Swanson described his team as "consistent." Working in the Wildcats' favor is No. 2 seed Ellicottville and No. 3 Maple Grove would play each other if they meet in the semifinals. Maple Grove is the defending Class D champions.

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