Local athletes will be making the second-longest road trip in Empire State Games history this week, but that isn't expected to slow down the Western Region march to the medal podium.
Western Regional Chairman Lou Reuter said that there was not much of a drop-off in tryouts for this year's Games, which will be hosted for the first time by Westchester County, about 400 miles away from Buffalo.
Western has won the overall medal count for 26 of the 29 previous Games. The last time Western wasn't on top was 1999, when host Long Island collected the most medals.
"I expect that we will do very well again," said Reuter, a Town of Tonawanda resident in his ninth year as chairman. "I would think having the Games downstate will help New York City, Long Island and of course the Hudson Valley. When they travel upstate [last year's Games were in Rochester], that's a haul. Does that affect their teams? Perhaps. It doesn't seem to bother us."
Just two years ago, the Games were hosted for the first time by the Hudson Valley, a region including the city of Poughkeepsie which is about 70 miles north of Westchester. The lengthy trip along the Thruway didn't keep Western from dominating the 2005 medal count: it had the most medals in every category, including a total of 251 (Hudson Valley was second with 156) and 103 golds (New York City had 56).
Much of this year's Games will be held in the southern portion of Westchester County, just a few javelin throws away from the border of the Bronx. Next year Binghamton will host the Games for the third time (July 23-27, 2008).
>Same 'ol streaks
Western will be out to maintain the three longest current team championship runs at the Games: synchronized swimming (29), men's scholastic volleyball (11) and men's ice hockey (seven).
If the scholastic team is to make it a dozen straight titles in men's volleyball, it will have to do it without any returning players from a team that went 19-0 in preliminary play and swept Long Island in the final. The squad includes three second-team All-Western New Yorkers in Frontier's Brian Charles (middle-hitter) and Phil Peterson (leftside-hitter) and Orchard Park setter J.J. Pincowski.
In women's volleyball, the scholastic team has two streaks of its own with five straight golds and 24 straight finals. Sweet Home's Kelsey Maving is one of three returners. She and Eden's Heather Henry were first-team All-WNY as sophomores. They're joined by Starpoint sisters Samantha (who will be a junior) and Sydney Palka (sophomore).
There are eight locals among the 10 members of a diverse, talented women's open team which is coming off a silver medal. UB assistant coach Jerusha Iya (6-foot-2) has played for Nigeria's national team, North Tonawanda's Jennifer Smith is one of Binghamton University's all-time best, former North Tonawanda and University at Buffalo great Lindsay Matikosh is competing in her seventh straight Games, Starpoint grad Allie Matters was Seton Hall's female freshman athlete of the year while three-time All-WNY first teamer Lindsey Schlegel of Lancaster, who is headed to UB, won scholastic gold last year.
Lancaster native Eric Honsberger, entering his senior season at Rutgers as an All-America candidate, returns to the men's open team, which was the only Western volleyball squad team not to medal last year.
Here's how good the Western men's ice hockey program is: last year's championship team included NHL No. 1 draft pick Patrick Kane of South Buffalo. The team, which has won gold in 19 of 25 Games (ice hockey was not part of the original ESG lineup), again is dominated with local players (17 of 20 roster spots). Brandon Broad of Nichols, Kevin Ryan of St. Francis and Kevin Ogiba of Niagara-Wheatfield all return to the squad coached by Dave Smith of Canisius College and Nick Carriere of Buffalo State. Ogiba is joined by fellow Niagara-Wheatfield club standout Nick Melligan, while goalie duo Derek Mohney (Sweet Home) and Branden Komm (Williamsville North) as well as defenseman Cole Schneider (St. Joe's) are coming off standout Federation seasons.
Western is 8 for 8 in medals since women's ice hockey was added to the Games, including gold in 2005 and silver last year. Brigitte Cellino, Maggie Giamo, Erica Owczarczak, Grace Waters and Pamela Zgoda of Nichols will be competing in their third straight Games.
Western's synchronized swimming team has been as dominant as it could be, winning gold in the team competition in each of the 29 Games. The entire squad again hails from the Buffalo area, including six returners. Laurie Wakelam of Tonawanda and Jessica Grogan of Orchard Park each took home four medals last year.
Rueter said that only in track and field was there a slight decline at tryouts, likely because athletes -- particularly in the open division -- would be traveling two days for what is often one day of competition.
Last year Western's squad had nine returning champions while this year's squad had just seven athletes who won any kind of medal last year.
Still, there are plenty of top athletes making the trip, including arguably the best returning high school athlete in Kenmore East's Anthony Johnson. The reigning state champion in the 100 meters -- who also plays soccer and basketball for the Bulldogs -- will defend his ESG gold in the 100. Other high school standouts include the Holland duo of Taylor Kensy (silver and bronze last year) and Jon Ramsey, each of whom won three Section VI Division II titles this spring.
Pioneer junior Anna Holmes, who broke a 23-year-old ECIC record in the 400 as she won the sectionals, will run the women's scholastic 200 and 400. Returning all-state cross country runner Jenna Hulton is in the 800 and 1,500. Sectional 1,500 champion Amanda Solly of West Seneca East will run that event as well as the 5,000, while West Seneca West is represented by Jillian O'Brien (100), Alexandra Denzel (10,000) and Lauren Lewis (heptathlon).
Newfane's Brianna Steele, who is headed to Tulsa University, will try and win the heptathlon for a third straight year -- but this time she'll be competing in women's open competition instead of scholastic. Cory Pixley, a Pioneer grad heading into his sophomore year at Tulsa, will compete in the men's javelin.
A pair of daVinci grads who won medals last year are coming off impressive college seasons. Binghamton junior Kimberly Williams, who helped Western to gold in the 400 relay, was named the America East women's most outstanding track athlete at the conference outdoor meet. RIT senior Lakeisha Perez, who took bronze in the 100 hurdles last year, qualified for the NCAA Division III championships in that event.
Lockport native Sarah Vance, who completed her UB career as the school's record-holder in the shot, hammer and discus, will compete in the shot and discus. East Aurora's Sarah Mosser (1,500) is coming off a successful freshman season at Boston University while sectional steeplechase champ Leanne Skrabacz of West Seneca East will run that event before leaving for Stony Brook. Falconer's Jacquie Holmberg will throw the discus after becoming a NJCAA Division III All-American in the discus and hammer at Alfred State.
UB grad Reggie Rucker will run both hurdles races after winning both at the Mid-American Conference championships. West Seneca native Todd Witzleben, now an assistant coach at Temple, will run the 10,000.
>Great basketball mix
As has been the case in recent years, the women's open basketball team is an interesting mix of local collegiate players. Return to the medal stand after last year's failed to medal after a five-year run in the top three.
Niagara, Canisius and UB are represented on the team, coached by Buffalo State assistant Tim Williams and former Bengal Jacey Brooks of Franklinville. It also includes McKinley grad Shakeena Cunningham, who will play at Robert Morris, as well as Medaille's Amanda Baker, a Lyons native who has won the American Mideast Conference Player of the Year for three straight years.
Western and Central aren't set to play in the preliminaries, but it would make for quite the matchup if the teams met in Sunday's medal round. Canisius sophomores Brittane Russell and Latasia Lee are playing for Western while teamate Amanda Cavo of New Hartford is playing for hometown Central.
The men's open team has three homegrown players from UB -- junior Greg Gamble (Niagara Falls), sophomore Byron Mulkey (Niagara-Wheatfield) and recent grad Darwin Young (Hutch-Tech) -- as well as Canisius duo in sophomore point guard Frank Turner and 6-8 junior Sean James. Bishop Timon-St. Jude grad Glen Ufland graduated as Hilbert's all-time leader in three-pointers.
There's an interesting fivesome in men's scholastic, with a tremendous Monsignor Martin trio of Justin Young (Canisius), Phil Scaffidi (St. Joe's) and William Regan (Nichols) as well as Frontier big men Jason Norsen and Grant Wrap.
Women's scholastic coaches Chris Durr of Williamsville East and Bill Shaw of Lockport have just two locals, but they're great ones: player of the year Joelle Connelly of Pioneer and fellow All-WNY first-teamer Erinne Cunningham of Jamestown.
>Around the Games
* The gymnastics arena has been a gold mine for Western in recent years. All four teams won gold last year. Keith Stumpf and Kayla Gray return after each won five medals in 2006.
* Field hockey coach Pete Tonsoline will be making his 17th trip to the Games and he may have one of his best teams because of Chantae Miller. The Williamsville North junior is a two-time second team All-American and has competed internationally the last two years. Western has just two medals -- both bronzes -- in the last eight years.
* Western softball won a medal in 17 of the first 18 Games, but has come up empty the last three years. The team is all local, ranging from former college standouts to current college players and a high schooler (Alden's Jordan Rutkowski).
* The baseball team won three straight golds from 2002 to 2004 but didn't medal the last two years. Three All-WNY first teamers are among a group of 11 locals: Lake Shore junior third baseman Jason Radwan, Jamestown senior pitcher Sebby Bellitto and Dunkirk senior catcher Joseph Polichetti.
* All four soccer teams played for gold last year, with several locals contributing to the men's open and women's scholastic wins. College grads Brian Knapp (UB), Matt Stuczynski (UB), Al Franjoine (Canisius) and Nick Wheeler (U. of Rochester) return to the open men along with UB senior Lee Catchpole. Three-year scholastic player Shannon Algoe (Williamsville North) returns with fellow All-WNY first teamers Jenny Griffin (Williamsville East), Heather Rhodes (Lockport) and Amber Smyth (North Tonawanda). Grand Island's Jessica Remmes is the only local in women's open.
* The wrestling Mariachers of Elma will try to repeat their feat of 2005, when twins Lucas and Reece and younger brother Matt all medaled: Lucas pinned Reece in the 143-pound Greco-Roman final while Matt won at 132. This year the twins are at 152 while reigning 130-pound state champion Matt is at 139. East Aurora's Nick Czapla returns at 165 after winning Greco-Roman gold at 154 last year.
* Cheektowaga siblings Richard (bronze last year) and Jennifer Fabiszewski are part of an archery program which always performs well.
* Gold medalists Daniel Carver (Kenmore), James Losi (East Amherst) and Janelle Munroe (Williamsville) return in swimming.
* The men's scholastic lacrosse team has seven Buffalo-area players led by two All-Americans: Joseph Resetarits (Hamburg) and Gregory Bensman (West Seneca East).
* Grand Island's Jay Joslyn (two golds) and Williamsville's Traci Mariniello (silver, bronze) are both back after helping Western cycling to a team gold.
* James O'Brien (Buffalo), Alan Walker (Pendleton) and Denise Volker (East Amherst) will try to repeat gold-medal performances in shooting.
* The tennis team, which returns Anthony Mazariegos of Orchard Park and sectional singles semifinalist Monica Vieth of Williamsville East, also includes sectional boys runner-up Matt Kane of Hamburg.
>Games at a glance
What: 30th Governor Hugh L. Carey Empire State Games, New York's annual athletic festival featuring nearly 6,000 athletes in 26 sports. Last year, the Games were officially named for the governor who founded them.
Where: Westchester County hosts the Games for the first time. Twenty-nine sport sites (some sports have different sites, like men's and women's basketball) are spread out at 20 facilities, including Iona College, Pace University, Manhattanville College and Westchester Community College.
When: Opening ceremonies Wednesday, competition Thursday through Sunday.
Who: Athletes from Western New York, along with those from the Rochester and Corning areas, made up the team from the Western Region, one of six regions represented at the Games. The others are Adirondack, Central, Long Island, New York City and host Hudson Valley.
Opening ceremony: Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. at Kensico Dam Plaza in Valhalla, which is referred to as "Westchester's Central Park." Features the parade of athletes, lighting of the torch, a marching band and fireworks.
Tickets: A master pass, which includes admission to opening ceremony and the 15 venues that require an admission charge, is $18 ($8 for children 6-12). Day passes are $8 ($5 for children).
Web sites: www.empirestategames.org has schedules, rosters and directions and will have results during the Games. www.empirestategameswestchester.com, run by the local organizing committee, has more information on opening ceremonies, a map of the region and additional details about the area.