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Athletic gems can be found in So. Tier

Sports fans in Buffalo and all of Erie County tend to focus only on teams and athletes in the immediate area and pay little attention to what is happening elsewhere in Western New York.

That's too bad because there is some special talent that has come out of places like Chautauqua County.

Two examples are Fredonia natives Jennifer Stuczynski and Michael Heary, who became members of the Chautauqua Sports Hall of Fame this week.

Stuczynski has stepped into the national spotlight in the pole vault, winning the silver medal last summer at the Olympics in Beijing. She continues to stand out with three major victories this year, including the Boston Indoor Games, where she set an American indoor record (15 feet, 9.75 inches).

But many of you would be surprised to know that Stuczynski was a great basketball player at Fredonia High School before moving on to Roberts Wesleyan College, where she graduated in 2004 as the school's all-time leading scorer while setting numerous records in track and field.

Heary might be the finest basketball player to come out the Southern Tier. He was a two-time first-team All-Western York selection and Buffalo News Player of the Year as a senior in 1994. His 2,235 points rank sixth on WNY's all-time list. He was recently named one of the best players of the '90s in our ongoing series celebrating the 50-year anniversary of the All-WNY team.

He found more success at the Naval Academy, where he finished fourth in scoring -- one of many areas in which he appears in the Midshipmen record book.

"I think what Mike and I have accomplished shows that small-town people can do big things," Stuczynski said. "If you have the belief you can achieve anything no matter where you're from."

Stuczynski's athletic prowess was evident at Fredonia and Roberts Wesleyan, but what she has done in the pole vault is nothing short of remarkable.

She became a national champion in 2005, just one year after taking up the sport. Today, she's the best American female pole vaulter ever.

Stuczynski actually credits Heary for inspiring her to excel in athletics. She saw his retired jersey in the Fredonia High gym every day and heard about all the things he did on the court.

"Mike was THE man at Fredonia, so he was definitely a motivator for me," Stuczynski said. "There are kids at Fredonia now who are saying the same thing about me that I did about Mike. I'm proud of that."

To put it simply, Heary is a legend in Fredonia. The status is warranted. I was lucky enough to cover his final two years, and I have rarely seen a guy who rose to the level of the moment like he did.

What cemented Heary's place in local basketball lore was a rare night game at Traditional, which featured future Division I players Jason Rowe, Damien Foster and Darcel Williams.

I wasn't there to see it, much to my chagrin, but those who witnessed his 62-point exhibition told me they have never seen anything like it. Even though Fredonia lost in overtime, 110-106, Traditional fans flocked around Heary after the game.

"I couldn't believe it," Heary said of the fan reaction. "It was out of the ordinary. I knew I had scored a lot of points. I didn't know exactly how many. I was mad we lost. But to have that level of respect from them and to have two programs from two completely opposite ends of the spectrum coming together like that, it's really a metaphor for a lot of great things."

While Stuczynski's star continues to rise, Heary has moved on to the next stage in his life. He lives in Annapolis, Md., with his wife, Sarah, (they are expecting a second daughter soon) and works in sales. He also is the color commentator on Navy's basketball radio broadcasts.

But no matter where Stuczynski and Heary go, Fredonia will always be home.

"You travel around the world and compete, but it's not like it is here," Stuczynski said. "This is where my heart is."

Chautauqua County has state championship teams and exceptional individuals. Maple Grove's Chris Secky, a gifted junior guard, is destined to be the next major basketball prospect.

All of them take their cue from Stuczynski and Heary, who both proved that great talent can be found anywhere. You just have to know where to look.

e-mail: awilson@buffnews.com

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