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Unheralded champions savor limelight <br> Middle College High thrives on teamwork

Buffalo's Middle College High School is designed to offer a small school setting for "C" students -- high school kids with the ability to work hard and do well, but who are in danger of getting lost in the system.

Now, the "C" also stands for champions. In just its second year of varsity sports, Middle College's basketball team last weekend won the state's Class C championship in Glens Falls with a lopsided 74-41 win over Maple Hill.

The school's sports program is so new it doesn't yet have a trophy case to display its Yale Cup and state championship trophies. But the victories -- and the unselfish way they were accomplished -- brought attention and pride to a school that considers itself both largely unrecognized and underappreciated.

"We're just a family," said Davon Alexander, who was selected the most valuable player in the state tournament. "We like to chill together, hang out. That brings us together." The Kats finished with a 23-1 record, including six straight playoff wins, but left fans asking an even more basic question: What is Middle College?

Established in 2003 with the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the school was designed for students in the middle who are too often overlooked -- not the City Honors School whiz and not the kid who's struggling mightily to stay in school. Middle College's top-ranked students, for example, work hard to earn grades of 91 or 92.

Middle College offers two special features -- an enrollment of less than 400 students and an opportunity to earn a high school diploma and a tuition-free associate's degree from nearby Erie Community College in five years.

The school operates out of the fourth floor of a converted office building at Main and Swan streets, has nearly 700 applications for next school year and requires students to attend four-week summer sessions.

Since Middle College is technically a branch of the Buffalo Public Schools' Occupational Training Center, the basketball team was required to wear uniforms that said "OTC" for the state tournament. That only added to the public's confusion about Middle College, said Sean Mulhern, a key player on the championship team who plans to play football at UB next year.

"People say we're like a band of misfits," he said. "They think we're 19 or 20 years old. They think we got recruited here. It's just not like that."

In fact, students are eligible to play sports only during their first four years at Middle College, said Susan Doyle, the principal. And rather than misfits, the school is designed to serve students eager to benefit from the personal attention available at a small school and the opportunity to take classes a few blocks away at ECC.

Middle College students are constantly reminded of the hard work required to tackle college courses while still in high school. The same message is delivered on the basketball court. "There were other teams that were bigger, stronger and faster," said Randall Rich, the Middle College coach and a physical education teacher at the school. "We decided we had to be smarter."

That meant getting four outstanding players -- Alexander, Mulhern, Darale Young and Justin Stokes -- to settle for less gaudy individual statistics for the good of the team.

Rich's message was the same from the first day of practice to the state championship game: make the extra pass, look for the best shot, learn the plays, work hard on defense and take nothing for granted.

"It takes a lot of time, a lot of effort and lots of screaming, back and forth," Rich said. "People have to be willing to learn, and you have to be able to teach." The message sank in, and team play became instinctive. "There are plenty of dudes who score 30 points and their teams go 1 and 18," Mulhern said. "Who ever remembers them? We want to be remembered."

The basketball players said a turning point in the season was their loss to Sweet Home, which gave them a necessary sense of vulnerability and made them work even harder.

The school itself also has overcome some ups and downs.

Many of its initial students lacked the maturity to handle the academic rigor and independence the school offers, but administrators have become far more adept at identifying students who are a good fit for the program, Doyle said.

Middle College initially planned to move to a location on the ECC downtown campus by 2006, but that did not materialize.

"It hasn't happened because in the last three or four years our enrollment has soared to record levels," said Jack F. Quinn Jr., ECC president. "We just don't have the space."

Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams last year asked developer Carl Paladino to allow the school system to break a lease for the school's present quarters, which runs through December 2013. Paladino refused, saying: "You can't just walk away from a lease.

As part of broader reorganization plans for city schools, the possibility has been raised over the last few years of Middle College being phased out or moved to Grover Cleveland High School.

The school system's projected $34.2 million budget deficit for next school year heightens those concerns.

Possible changes in the program remain unclear, but Williams feels strongly that Middle College is working well and will continue to operate, said Amber Dixon, director of project initiatives for the city schools.

Precisely how that plays out remains to be seen.

e-mail: psimon@buffnews.com

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