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The curtain rose on the 20th Empire State Games Wednesday with the usual pomp.

About 8,000 spectators attended opening ceremonies, which were moved to another site on the University at Albany campus because the New York Giants are occupying the school's stadium during training camp.

The cramped surrounding at Collins Circle did not dampen spirits of the 7,000 athletes dressed in their bright yellow warm-up suits.

An impressive fireworks display and the lighting of the torch by Western Region volleyball player Rocco Lucci were a couple of the highlights.

And while it's not even a statewide election year, several state and local politicians still emerged.

One of the featured speakers was former Gov. Hugh Carey, who started the Games 20 years ago. He had high praise for the athletes and thanked them for keeping the event alive.

"The uniforms you wear tonight are a badge and a significant honor," Carey told the participants. "We're all so proud of you and you've only heard the beginning of the way we're going to applaud you as long as these Games are running. You are the winners and that's why we salute you."

Also on hand was Gov. George Pataki, whose speech was much shorter than the recent state budget negotiations.

Pataki said these Games are just the start of greater things ahead for the participants.

"We have here future Olympians, future professional athletes from all sports," he said. "But more important, we have future leaders, young people who will lead us into the 21st century."

The keynote speaker was Jason Morris, a Scotia native and three-time Olympian. Morris said Wednesday was the fifth anniversary of his silver medal-winning effort at the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

"I'm here to tell you tonight that dreams do come true," Morris said.

The athletes begin their gold-medal dreams today as competition begins in most of the 27 sports.

It is not a stretch to say Western has been the superior region during the previous 19 years. Only twice have the athletes from Buffalo and Rochester failed to bring home more medals than any other region.

There is plenty reason to think Western's dominance will continue.

"I really think that between Section V (Rochester) and Section VI (Buffalo area), we're very well covered in all sports," said Western Region director Mark Sternin. "Some of the other places might be stronger in some areas, but certainly we have well-rounded programs in both Sections V and VI."

The surest thing going for Western has been the synchronized swimming team, which sports a 19-0 record in team competition. This year's squad is comprised of Tonawanda Aquettes and Buffalo Swimkins.

Two other Western teams seek to regain their once unbreakable grip on the gold.

The scholastic women's volleyball team saw its six-year streak end last summer by losing to Long Island. Western has a chance to get revenge right away as the teams meet in an opening-round match tonight at 6 p.m.

Western's ice hockey team tries to rebound from a disappointing bronze-medal showing last summer. A strong roster could lead to a 13th gold medal in the sport's 16-year Games history.

Meanwhile, Western's open men's basketball team is well-stocked with talent and is determined to get the gold after falling short a year ago. Western won it all in 1994 and 1995.

"We're back and we're very hungry," said point guard Jody Crymes, a former LaSalle High standout who now plays at Mercyhurst College. "We didn't come all this way for nothing. We're intent to bring home the gold."

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