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ALBANY PRIMED FOR SUCCESSFUL RUN IN 20TH YEAR OF EMPIRE GAMES

After a bumpy ride in 1996, the Empire State Games officials are hoping for smoother sailing in 1997.

New York's premier amateur athletic festival begins its 20th celebration Wednesday in Albany with the optimism that last year's problems are behind them.

The 1996 Games, which returned to Buffalo for the first time since a two-year run in 1985 and 1986, were a disaster according to many veteran observers. The lack of organization and poor marketing resulted in low attendance. Venues were too spread out for fans to get to them, and, in many instances, events were ending when they were supposed to be starting.

Albany, which hosted the Games in 1991 and 1992, seems to be more prepared. Advertisements promoting the Games have been running for months. Add the local corporate sponsorship dollars to the state's contribution of $900,000, and the Capital District has exceeded the $1.5 million required to put on the event.

"Everything is right on schedule," said Fred Smith, the Games' executive director. "Last year, I think some of the problems with the organizing committee may have been internal. But I also believe many people there were earnest in trying to make the Games successful.

"Albany has done a great job with their preparations. The organizers have put together a solid marketing program to attract fans. We're all excited and looking forward to a great week of competition."

Albany officials did have to move some venues around. The University at Albany, the Games' hub in 1991-92, is now the training camp home for the NFL New York Giants.

Part of campus will be used for opening ceremonies and housing. The events will be held at Siena College, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Hudson Valley Community College, Pepsi Arena (formerly Knickerbocker Arena), Albany High School and other sites throughout the Capital District.

"The Giants using SUNY Albany hurts, but I don't think it will cause any major problems," Smith said. "We did our best not to have venues too spread out. Everything is pretty accessable."

Smith said plans are already being made for future sites. Rochester hosts the Games in 1998, concluding a rotation that included Syracuse, Ithaca, Buffalo and Albany. Long Island, Binghamton and Canton/Potsdam have expressed interest in becoming hosts.

Despite the problems in Buffalo, Smith would not rule out the possibility of the Games returning here.

"I think the city learned a lot from the mistakes of last year," Smith said. "The city has expressed an interest in bring the Games back. We have to weigh the whole group of cities to see where we are. Everyone will get some consideration."

But first things first. It's time for the 1997 Games to begin as more than 7,000 athletes will compete in 27 sports. The opening ceremonies are set for 7:30 p.m. Wednesday at the University at Albany Stadium.

Smith said Gov. Pataki has been invited to be the keynote speaker. It is unknown whether he will be available. On the confirmed guest list is three-time Olympian Jason Morris, who is a native of Scotia, a small town near Schenectady. Morris earned a silver medal in judo at the Barcelona Games.

Competition opens Thursday for most of the sports and runs through Sunday. In case you have forgotten, the divisions are open and scholastic (high school eligibility remaining). There is also master's competition for older competitors.

Athletes represent six regions -- Western, Adirondack (the host), Central, Hudson Valley, Long Island and New York City. Western athletes encompasses the Buffalo and Rochester metropolitan areas and extends north-south from Lake Ontario to the Pennsylvania border.

Here's a look at some of Western's top prospects:

Athletics (track and field)

Riverside graduate Nathyia Jackson, last year's scholastic 100-meter hurdles champ, makes his open debut in the same event. Former Sweet Home standout and two-time decathlon champ James Garnham is entered in the open discus and shot put. Forestville's Rebecca Heuer seeks to defend her gold medal in the open 1,500 meters. She also will run the 800.

Starpoint senior Heather Cappello, state champion in the 1,500, goes for gold in the scholastic 5,000. Clarence's Kia Johnson (200 meters), Lockport's Jenny Puff (triple jump), Hamburg's Justin King (discus and shot put) and Williamsville East's Dan Griffin (high jump) are Section VI champions competing in the scholastic field. Chauvonne Senior (Hamburg) is a medal favorite in the scholastic heptathlon.

Basketball

New Canisius College head coach Mike MacDonald returns for his fifth year with the the open men's team. He keeps many of the same players every year, but you can't argue with the strategy. His teams have four medals, including golds in 1994 and 1995.

Former LaSalle guard Jody Crymes (Mercyhurst), Syracuse forward Ryan Blackwell and Division III All-American Craig Jones (Rochester Institute of Technology) are among the six regulars. The newcomers include Niagara's Jeremiah Johnson, Golden Griffs forward Keith Lampkin and Canisius recruit and Buffalo News player of the year Darren Fenn.

St. Francis' Craig Austin, Riverside's Mark Price, Kensington's Will Hennagan and St. Joe's Jeff Senulis anchor a good scholastic squad, which has won gold, silver and bronze, respectively, from 1994 to '96.

The women's teams look to improve upon last year's bronze-medal efforts. Former Canisius stars Thais Alexander and Mimi LaMagna and former Buffalo State All-America Arlene Eagan lead the open team. The scholastic team is led by News player of the year Angela Tylec (Niagara-Wheatfield) and All-Western New Yorker Meghan House (Lew-Port).

Ice hockey

Western had won six straight gold medals before having to settle for the bronze last summer. It was only the third time in the sport's 15-year Games history that Western (a 68-7-3 ESG record) failed to take home the top prize.

The team was hurt by the loss of several key players who were invited to the United States Regional Camp in Colorado Springs, Colo., during the same weekend. Three of those players -- Depew's Craig Florkowski, Amherst's Brooks Orpik and Rochester's Sam Paolini -- return this year. The roster also includes Jeff Jurek and Gary Hill of WNY Varsity Federation champion St. Joe's, Joe Carosa of St. Francis, Jason Kuczmanski and Chris Welch of the Niagara Scenics.

Swimming

Two of Western's best scholastic performers, Orchard Park's Jeff Rettallack and Getzville's Ilene Solomon (Williamsville North) graduate to open competition. Rettallack won scholastic gold in the 100 and 200-meter freestyle and the 400 medley relay, while Soloman is a two-time scholastic 200 butterfly champ.

The scholastic team brings back some heavy medal. Stacey Kalota (West Seneca West) is back to defend golds in the 200 individual medley and 100 backstroke. She also won silvers in the 200 backstroke and 400 medley relay. Orchard Park resident Mike Jimenez (Nichols) is the returning champ in the 100 and 200 backstroke and 400 medley relay. He added a bronze in the 800 freestyle.

Synchronized swimming

Led by members of the Tonawanda Aquettes and Buffalo Swimkins, Western is a strong favorite to capture its 20th consecutive team gold medal. Tonawanda's Kelly Barker and Karen Russell return to try to break their ESG duet record score of 143.513 points. Barker also won silver in the solo event. Erica Kubus (Tonawanda) and Julie Fredrick (Williamsville) are the other returnees.

Best of the rest

Elma's Brent Bollman, a candidate for the 2000 U.S. Olympic team, owns ESG records in each of the six scholastic archery events. He is ranked No. 1 in the United States Youth Division and No. 10 in the world. Lorinda Cohen (Angola) is the returning scholastic women's all-around champ. Five-time all-around champion Courtney Zak (Lake View) returns to open competition after a two-year absence. . . . Kelli Coppola (Orchard Park) leads the open women's field hockey team's bid to defend its gold medal. Jodi Lume (Lancaster) and Robin Merritt (Amherst) lead the scholastic team, last year's bronze medal winner. . . . Scholastic all-around gymnastics champion Dana Stencel (Cheektowaga) moves up to open competition. Jenna Lewis (Amherst) won open gold on beam last summer. . . . Brothers Marty and Nicholas Rastelli look to add to family's collection of more than 30 judo medals. . . . Several members of Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference softball champion Canisius -- player of the year Jennifer Silata, All-MAAC selection Ellie Hanover (Depew) and Jessica Rosenhahn (West Seneca) -- lead the open team. . . . Two-time All-WNYer Allison Clark (Frontier) returns to help the scholastic team bid for its 15th gold medal in 20 years. The team's streak of six straight was snapped by Long Island last year. . . . Tim Vaughan (North Tonawanda) and Matt Nalbone (Niagara Falls) return to help Western seek a scholastic three-peat in water polo. . . . University at Buffalo standouts Jeromy McVige (Albion) and Marcus Hutchins are members of the open wrestling team. McVige was runner-up in the U.S. National Greco-Roman Championships earlier this year. Hutchins is UB's only three-time NCAA tournament qualifier.

EMPIRE STATE GAMES FACTS & FIGURES
What: The 20th Empire State Games, New York's annual amateur athletic festival featuring over 7,000 athletes competing in 27 sports.

Where: Albany and surrounding areas in the Capital District.

When: Opening ceremonies are Wednesday night at 7:30 at Univ. at Albany Stadium. Competition begins Thursday and runs through Sunday.

Tickets: A master pass, good for all events and the opening ceremonies, is $13 for adults and $6 for children ages 6 to 12. Opening ceremonies tickets and single-day passes are $6 (adult) and $4 (children). Tickets are available at each venue. There is no charge for 19 of the sports.

How To Get There: Take the Thruway east to Exit 24 (Albany). Many venues are accessible off that exit or by connecting to Interstate 87, the Adirondack Northway.