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Winning WNY sports news hard to find in 2016

Triumphs on the Western New York sports landscape for 2016 were difficult to find.

The two most popular teams didn’t have years to remember. The Bills staggered down the stretch, and saw their playoff hopes die in Sunday’s loss to the Dolphins. The Sabres missed the postseason in the spring, and struggled in the fall.

Some of the other teams in town had similar problems. The University at Buffalo football team suffered through a poor year at 2-10. The Buffalo Bisons were 12 games under .500. The Canisius men’s basketball team was 14-19, while its counterpart at Niagara was 7-25.

Buffalo fans couldn’t even say, “Well, at least we’re not Cleveland” this year. That city won its first NBA championship, and came within a game of winning the World Series.

There were some happy sports tales in Western New York in 2016; you just had to look for them. However, they were overshadowed when Rex Ryan was fired as coach of the Bills on Tuesday.

Here, then, is The News’ list of the top sports stories of the year.

Starting over

It’s a case of another year, another coaching change for the Bills. Ryan’s departure was an open secret in December, especially once the Bills seemed certain to miss the playoffs for the 17th straight year. The Bills have had eight head coaches in that 17-year span; interim coach Anthony Lynn will make it nine on Sunday.

Ryan leaves with a 15-16 record over almost two years as the coach in Buffalo. He has three years left at his contract at $5.5 million per season, and media outlets certainly will be interested in hiring him if he doesn’t stay in coaching. As for the team, Bills’ fans know that a new head coach means a new coaching staff, philosophical changes, and roster turnover.

Olympic glory

Western New York hasn’t produced many Olympic medalists over the years. This year, the region had three, making the Summer Games in Rio memorable.

The highlight was Emily Regan, who earned a gold medal as part of the women’s eight in rowing. It was her first Olympic final, and she came through in the clutch along with her teammates. Regan is the first local rower to ever take home a gold.

Jake Kaminski of Elma also had something to declare at customs: a silver medal in archery. He and two American teammates combined to finish second in the men’s team event.
Meanwhile, Matt Anderson of West Seneca helped the U.S. to a bronze in men’s volleyball.

Anita Alvarez, a synchronized swimmer from Kenmore, was another Western New Yorker who turned in a good performance.

Doubleheader

The University at Buffalo athletic department may have never had a better day than March 12, 2016.

First, the UB women advanced to the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Stephanie Reid’s shot at the buzzer gave the Bulls a 73-71 win over Central Michigan and the Mid-American Conference championship. UB was an eighth seed, the lowest ever to win the MAC playoff title.

A few hours later in the same building, Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland, the Bulls earned another ticket to March Madness. Blake Hamilton hit a three-pointer with two seconds left to give the Buffalo men’s team a 64-61 win over Akron. It was the squad’s second straight trip to the Big Dance, the first under new coach Nate Oats.

Will they or won’t they?

As the Bills moved along toward another so-so record, the spotlight fell on their quarterback − as it so often does in football. Tyrod Taylor signed a new six-year contract in August that could be worth up to $92 million. But the deal came with a catch − an opt-out clause after the first year. That gave the team a chance to see how he did in his second year as a starter before electing to pay out $27.5 million to him in March.

Bills fans, coaches and executives spent the season evaluating Taylor’s play. Was he the man who would stop the team’s revolving door at quarterback? Taylor’s season felt like a step backwards at times, making the decision even more difficult. The alternative to keeping him is to start yet another search for a passer.

The team’s decision not to play Taylor in Sunday’s season finale might be a big clue as to its thinking about Taylor’s future. We’ll see.

Coughed up

In many of the so-called Olympic sports, part of the bargain is that fame can come your way every four years ... but only during a few days in that four-year span. If something goes wrong, you are out of luck for more than 1,400 days.

Such was the case for Fredonia native Jenn Suhr in the pole vault. The defending Olympic champion in the event was considered a top contender going into Rio. But she picked up a nasty respiratory infection at exactly the wrong time, and was so weak that she could do no better than seventh.

Suhr will be 38 when the next Olympics come around. She hopes to keep that window to glory open until then. But no matter what happens, she is the best woman pole vaulter in American history.

Simply the best

Western New York native Patrick Kane won the Hart Trophy as the National Hockey League’s most valuable player, and the Ross Trophy as the league’s leading scorer. That put him in an exclusive club. Kane is the only born-and-raised American to ever win the Hart Trophy, and the first American to ever win the Ross Trophy.

He’s already won the Calder Trophy, the Conn Smythe Trophy and three Stanley Cups. Kane might be the face of U.S. hockey right now, and has a chance to be regarded as the best in U.S. history. He’s chasing such players as Brian Leetch, Brett Hull, Pat LaFontaine and Chris Chelios.

The future arrives

Last season, the Buffalo Beauts had a player named Hailey Browne. This season, the roster featured Harrison Browne. It’s the same person, but with a different name and pronouns. “Brownie” is the first transgender athlete in American professional team sports.

The National Women’s Hockey League this past week announced its policy of participation of transgender athletes. Browne was named to the Hockey News’ list of the 100 most powerful people in the sport in early December.

Falling just short

By most standards, the Bandits had their most successful season since 2008. They won the National Lacrosse League’s East Division, and advanced to the championship round for the first time in eight years. There, they ran into the defending champions, the Saskatchewan Rush. Buffalo played hard in the final, and both games in the best-of-three series were close. But Saskatchewan was just a bit better, and the Rush earned another title.

Dhane Smith was named the Most Valuable Player of the NLL, one of three Buffalo lacrosse players in history so honored. John Tavares was inducted to the NLL Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility, a fitting tribute to the man most consider the best player in the game’s history.

Coaching carousel

Jim Crowley had built up the St. Bonaventure women’s basketball program during his 16 years on the job. The Bonnies had made two NCAA tournaments (including one in 2016) and four WNITs. Therefore, there was disappointment in Olean when he left for the same job at Providence College. Jesse Fleming was hired to replace him.

Elsewhere, Jim Baron caught some people by surprise in May when he announced his retirement as the Canisius men’s coach. A familiar name replaced him: Reggie Witherspoon spent 14 seasons as University at Buffalo coach. He had winning seasons in seven of his last 10 there. Witherspoon jumped at the chance to come back home, and the move was popular among basketball fans.

The injury bug

Injuries are a way of life in sports, but the Bills and Sabres were particularly damaged by them in the calendar year. For the Bills, Sammy Watkins was bothered by a foot injury throughout the entire year, taking away one of their two biggest offense threats. The season-ending injury to Aaron Williams didn’t help either, and neither did significant injuries to the team’s first two draft picks, Shaq Lawson and Reggie Ragland.

For the Sabres, Jack Eichel suffered a high ankle sprain before the season even started and missed six weeks. The team missed his offensive talents, and we’ll have to see if the injury was costly in the team’s attempt to return to the postseason next spring.

Honorable mention

• The St. Bonaventure men’s basketball team misses out on an NCAA bid, despite being the co-champion of the Atlantic 10’s regular season. The disappointed Bonnies later lost to Wagner at home in the first round of the NIT. Bona’s women’s team is selected for the NCAA tournament, and upsets No. 7 Oklahoma State before losing to No. 2 Oregon State.

• The Bills hire Kathryn Smith as an assistant quality control coach, making her the NFL's first female full-time assistant coach.

• The Western New York Flash wins the National Women’s Soccer League championship against the Washington Spirit in a penalty shootout.

• The NHL Draft returns to Buffalo. Auston Matthews goes first overall to the delight of the many Toronto fans watching.

• Kyle Okposo, one of the top free agents on the market in the summer, signs a seven-year contract with the Sabres.

• Olean’s Jeff Anastasia makes the state basketball Hall of Fame, the day after his undefeated Huskies capture the state Class B title. Middle Early College took the C crown.

• Eden girls’ volleyball coach Stephen Pierce makes it eight straight state championships before retiring, ending a spectacular career that featured 995 wins and 14 state titles.

• The Canisius women’s lacrosse team wins another conference title and returns to the NCAA playoffs.

• The Buffalo Beauts upset the Connecticut Whale in the National Women’s Hockey League playoffs before dropping two games to the Boston Pride in the best-of-three final.

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