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CENTAURS GET WITH THE PROGRAM <br> HONORS VOLLEYBALL TEAM WORKS TO KEEP STREAK ALIVE

The City Honors girls volleyball team had just swept its opponent in three games and participated in the postgame handshake. But while Hutch-Tech filed out of the gym, City Honors players traded their uniform jersey for a T-shirt and gladly headed back on the court for another hour of practice.

"The other city girls make fun of us," said City Honors senior co-captain Erin Heaney. "They say, 'You guys are practicing again? You already played! You guys are good enough!' "

Good enough? By practicing while other city teams are heading home, and by attending the toughest tournaments it can find, City Honors volleyball has to be the best sports program in the Buffalo Public Schools.

The Centaurs, the top-ranked girls volleyball small school in Western New York, haven't lost a game to a city opponent since 1984. "Not a match," Heaney pointed out. "A game. We haven't lost a game in 19 years."

City Honors has won every Buffalo Public Schools girls volleyball championship since 1985, going undefeated each year by sweeping every opponent. The last time the Centaurs lost was to Grover Cleveland, 15-11, 15-5, on Nov. 7, 1984, the final match of that season. Since then, matches have expanded from best-of-three to best-of-five (in 1993), and the league has fluctuated from 12 to 15 teams.

But City Honors has just kept on winning: 241 league matches in a row and 631 straight games after it swept daVinci on Monday in its league finale. With that victory City Honors won its 20th straight league championship.

"We just play hard every time on the court and we don't take anything for granted," said Lorraine Wingenbach, Honors' other co-captain and only other senior. "You know what? Maybe some team is going to surprise us. But we're going to come back and win the match."

City programs don't play the most competitive brand of volleyball, which has led City Honors to seek tough competition at outside tournaments. Drake Francescone, who built the program during a 16-year coaching tenure (1980 to '95), had City Honors playing in out-of-state tournaments during the same time that Sweet Home became a national power under current University at Buffalo coach Sally Kus.

The Centaurs kept getting better (four straight state championships from 1990 to '93, nine sectional championships), and the streak kept getting longer.

When Deborah Matos took over the program in 1996, she nurtured the winning tradition with similar tournament trips.

This season, City Honors made an early mark by beating volleyball power Eden in the finals of the Frontier Tournament on Sept. 18, and advanced deep into tournaments at Sweet Home and Eden. The Centaurs advanced to the semifinals of the Smithtown Tournament on Long Island on Oct. 9-10 and last weekend they won the silver flight of the Horseheads Tournament, which is annually one of the toughest tournaments in the state.

They're earning honors for the city while very much remaining a city school: no gym, no buses, no frills. The minimal amount of funding they receive is supplemented by players running year-round bagel sales before school and candy bar sales at lunch. The team travels to the former Kensington High for practices and games. And Matos pours herself into the job.

"Our coach works really, really hard," said Heaney. "She's the reason we get to do all these things. She helped run a camp and donated all the funds to us, because the city doesn't pay for anything. A lot of the suburban programs get buses to everywhere, or they get new jerseys, and she helps fund-raise and she gives up so much of her free time."

"I think that, all of us, we don't take anything for granted," said Wingenbach. "Those wins on those weekends are the best. I mean, I was bawling when we won the Frontier Tournament. It's a great feeling."

And it's a feeling, Matos says, that doesn't necessarily need to be limited to one city school.

"You need a strong parent group and strong administrative support, which we have -- we're blessed," said Matos. "But I object when people say, 'city kids.'

"These are city kids, too. Granted, they have parents who are involved, they go to an academically challenging school, and they work for what they want. I think any school that wants to do it needs to make those commitments, but it can happen. The city has talented athletes. The athletes are here, it's a matter of making them believe that it's possible."

For now, the volleyball net at Honors' matches might as well mark a divide of the sport's novices and experts. While their opponents are often just hoping to return the ball over the net, the Centaurs are calling out plays, dropping into formations and setting up kills.

"It's a different world," said Wingenbach. "(At tournaments) you're going against the best hitters in Western New York. (In league games), you're wondering when the ball is going to come over."

Thirty minutes after the sweep of previously unbeaten Hutch-Tech -- the scores were 25-2, 25-4, and 25-6 -- Matos spoke about the competitive imbalance while her team was going through a hitting drill.

"The tournaments we're going to are against the best teams in the state," she said. "I know, in the city, people might think I'm trying to run up scores. But I make no apologies, because this team works that hard. (Other teams) are home now, or they're on cell phones, and we're here, and we'll be here. That's how we run the show. The kids expect it. They go to City Honors."

Matos is a disciplinarian in the same vein as Francescone, whose tough-love teaching made him beloved by athletes in several sports during a coaching career which spanned 22 years. He retired in 2002, after his Centaurs boys basketball team won the Class C state championship.

"Drake handed me a program," Matos said. "It was my job to maintain it, and I took it seriously and so did the team I adopted (in 1996). Basically, the administration said to me, 'You can let it go. We understand, You're new.' And I thought, I'll leave it up to the kids. But they said, 'Oh, no, this tradition doesn't die.' And this program is so steeped in tradition."

When former players return to watch a City Honors match, they'll hear the same cheers that were echoing in the gym 15 years ago. Players are told who formerly wore their uniform number. Matos said when players meet that former Centaur, "they could be perfect strangers, but it's like they're bonded for life."

The Centaurs haven't been to the Section VI finals since 2000. As the sectional tournament begins this weekend, City Honors and Eden (which has won five straight sectional titles) are the favorites to meet in the Class B finals. The confident Centaurs aren't making any predictions, but as those maroon and grey City Honors T-shirts say: "Begin with the end in mind."

"To get back to that final the way City Honors used to make a habit of it," said Matos, "that's our goal."
e-mail: kmcshea@buffnews.com