Getting home for Christmas isn't a problem for Heather Turner.
While other college athletes are figuring out plane reservations and cramming as much family time as possible into a 48-hour window of freedom, Turner just needs to drive from the University at Buffalo to her parents' home in West Seneca.
She is one of several prominent local athletes who have chosen to play collegiately close to home.
While easy holiday travel may not have been foremost on her mind, staying in Western New York was a priority for Turner, a standout at Mount Mercy Academy.
"Back [in high school] I knew I did want to stay somewhere close to home within a distance that my family could come and see me play," Turner said. "Distance was a factor. Education was another factor. I did look into all the local schools . . . and Buffalo was the best fit for me.
"I've had great support from my family and friends. Someone from my family is always here. My friends drive in from other schools to see me play. That makes me feel very happy and secure on the court, knowing that my family and friends are there supporting me."
Being in familiar surroundings helped her play well immediately as she was named the Mid-American Conference's Rookie of the Year in 2004-05.
Now a junior, she has improved her overall game, adding moves in the low post and becoming stronger. She leads the Bulls in scoring (12.8 points per game) and rebounding (7.9 per game).
"When I came here, I didn't feel out of my element and that was important to me," Turner said. "I knew where things were. I knew where to go if I needed anything. It made me feel very comfortable and at ease. . . . My game has progressed here. I'm taking some more shots and trying to be more physical down low. And I'm always working on my free throws."
While Turner is trying to help the women's team become a MAC contender, Greg Gamble is trying to help the UB men's team remain a MAC contender. The sophomore from Niagara Falls started 20 games as a freshman.
This year, he's started all 10 games for the Bulls, averaging nearly seven points and five rebounds along with making 10 steals and 20 assists.
The Bulls also benefited on the football field, where James Starks of Niagara Falls and Naaman Roosevelt of St. Joe's performed well for coach Turner Gill this year. Starks led the team in rushing with 773 yards and scored six touchdowns. Roosevelt had 31 receptions for 429 yards and two touchdowns and led the team in punt and kickoff returns, taking one kickoff 94 yards for a score.
While the four players from UB stayed home for college, other players returned for a variety of reasons.
Rodney Pierce, a sophomore guard out of Hutch-Tech, decided he wanted to come back to Western New York after a coaching change at Rider. Pierce, a guard who averaged 5.1 points and 2.7 assists as a freshman, is at UB sitting out his NCAA-mandated transfer year.
Corey Herring came back to play for Canisius. Herring, who played at Bishop Timon-St. Jude, spent two seasons with Baylor's men's basketball team. As a sophomore in Texas, he averaged 7.4 points and 3.4 rebounds but his time there was marred by serious NCAA violations by the Bears and the murder of one of his teammates. So he left the troubled team.
While Canisius men's basketball has struggled, Herring has been a bright spot. This year, he is second on the team in scoring, averaging 12.5 points while shooting nearly 40 percent from the field.
Meanwhile, the Canisius hockey program is attempting to build a reputation by attracting, and retaining, local players. For years the Buffalo area has been deep in talent and 26 Western New Yorkers are now on Division I rosters.
The Griffs have eight of them, including leading scorer and Buffalo native Josh Heidinger, a forward who is tied for third nationally in rookie scoring with 21 points (seven goals, 14 assists). Michael Cohen, a senior from Williamsville, has five goals and four assists.
"We want players in Western New York to grow up wanting to play for Canisius College," Griffs coach Dave Smith said. "We want people to see our players in the community and at youth hockey clinics. Then, people get interested, come out to our games and see the talent level we have."
Niagara hockey has one local player, freshman Chris Moran, who ranks fourth on the team and is tied with Heidinger for third in rookie scoring with 21 points (four goals, 17 assists).
The forward from Buffalo plays the point a lot on the power play.