After too many years of losing and drudgery, the Buffalo sports scene was marked by two overriding themes in 2018.
One was hope. Strangely enough, the other was historic trips to Dallas, a place that broke the city's collective hearts three major times during the 1990s.
Cynics might chuckle on the first point. The Bills and Sabres, in particular, have had nothing to sell but their hope tanks in recent years. But this time, the gauge started inching up.
The Bills actually played in a playoff game for the first time in 18 years (though connected to the 2017 season, we'll point out the 10-3 loss at Jacksonville was played on Jan. 7, 2018). Both the Bills and Sabres drafted franchise rocks, and who's unhappy with what they've seen so far from Josh Allen and Rasmus Dahlin?
As for Dallas, it's where St. Bonaventure's best basketball season since the 1970 Final Four ended after it became the first Big 4 team to win an NCAA Tournament game since 2007. The University at Buffalo would follow with a victory two nights later in Boise, Idaho. It's where the Bills drafted Allen and where cancer-stricken super fan Ezra "Pancho Billa" Castro was called on stage by Andre Reed and Fred Jackson to announce a pick. And where the Sabres drafted Dahlin. All that came in a span of just more than three months, forever giving Big D and the 716 some connections other than a certain pair of Super Bowls or a controversial finish to a Stanley Cup final.
Here's a look back at our choices for the top 10 stories of 2018 in Buffalo sports:
Finding a replacement for Jim Kelly has taken more than two decades, and even though Taylor led the Bills to the end of the drought — thank you, Andy Dalton — it was clear that the team wanted to move in another direction. The Bills traded Taylor to Cleveland on March 10 where he was quickly supplanted as the Browns starting quarterback by No. 1 overall draft pick Baker Mayfield of Oklahoma.
After weeks of speculation by fans and media among the likes of Mayfield, Sam Darnold and Josh Rosen, the Bills took Allen at the draft April 26 in AT&T Stadium. They traded up with Tampa Bay to get to the No. 7 spot and select the University of Wyoming gunslinger. Allen's rookie year has been an up-and-down one, highlighted by his meme-of-a-hurdle over a defender in a victory at Minnesota, concern over an elbow injury that left him on the sideline for multiple weeks and then showing dynamic play with his arm and legs.
After a miserable last-place season, the Sabres finally got some good fortune when they won the NHL's draft lottery in April in Toronto. The prize: The right to take 18-year-old Swedish defenseman Rasmus Dahlin with the No. 1 pick of the draft June 22 in American Airlines Center. Dahlin was the center of attention at the NHL Scouting Combine in HarborCenter the last week of May and then came the big moment: Less than two months after Allen donned his Bills jersey in Big D, Dahlin did likewise with his first Sabres sweater, becoming the club's first No. 1 overall since Pierre Turgeon in 1987
While the Bills hope Allen can develop into a solid NFL quarterback, Dahlin has already developed into a mainstay on the Buffalo defense and will give the Sabres a long-missing presence in the NHL and even on the international hockey scene.
Not since St. Bonaventure in 1970 has a Big 4 school been on such a roll on the hardwood as what we've seen in Amherst. In March, the University at Buffalo men's basketball team stunned fourth-seeded Arizona, 89-68, in a first-round NCAA Tournament game in Boise, Idaho, for the program's first NCAA win and the first in a main-draw victory by a local school since the days of Bob Lanier in Olean.
Wes Clark scored 25 points for the Bulls, whose season would end two days later with a loss to Kentucky, 95-75. But the momentum has never stopped for coach Nate Oats' crew. The '18-19 campaign opened with UB in the top 15 while earning the Big 4's first national ranking since '70, and off to its best start in 90 years.
The UB women joined the 2012 St. Bonaventure team as the only area women's teams to make the Sweet 16, losing to South Carolina, 79-63, in the regional semifinal before a blue-and-white-clad crowd in Albany to complete a record-setting 29-6 season. Coach Felisha Legette-Jack's Bulls were an at-large team after losing the MAC Tournament final to Central Michigan, but drubbed South Florida (102-79) and Florida State (86-65) in the first two rounds of the NCAAs in Tallahassee. In the process, they turned guards Cierra Dillard and Stephanie Reid into two of the biggest female names on the local sports scene in many years.
For three weeks in November, NHL hockey was revived in Buffalo to a level not seen in these parts since the Sabres' back-to-back runs to the Eastern Conference final in 2006 and 2007. The Sabres tied the franchise record with 10 consecutive victories, the most to date in the NHL this season. Drama was a nightly accompaniment. Nine of the wins were by one goal. Seven were in overtime or shootout. The team trailed in six of the games, notably when it wiped out a three-goal deficit and got an overtime goal from Jack Eichel to post a 5-4 win in Pittsburgh. The run shot the Sabres to No. 1 in the NHL's overall standing and set them up for their first playoff berth since 2011 before ending with a 5-4 loss Nov. 30 at Tampa Bay.
The Sabres' streak and their rise up the standings have been heavily connected to GM Jason Botterill, who traded Evander Kane and Ryan O'Reilly, didn't re-sign goalie Robin Lehner, signed goalie Carter Hutton as a free agent July 1 and made a stealth move Aug. 2 by getting high-scoring winger Jeff Skinner from the Carolina Hurricanes. By only giving up prospect Cliff Pu and draft picks, the Skinner deal looks like one of the great heists in franchise history, evoking memories of Stéphane Beauregard for Dominik Hasek and Chris Gratton for Daniel Briere.
After starting the season at Double-A New Hampshire and then sitting out a few weeks with a knee injury, baseball's top prospect hit town on July 31. Third baseman Vladimir Guerrero Jr. arrived a couple of days after his namesake father was inducted into the Hall of Fame. The younger Guerrero showed remarkable plate discipline, power to all fields and even a better-than-expected glove at third base to pump some life into an otherwise moribund Bisons season. Nine of the last 10 games, in fact, saw the Herd sell more than 10,000 tickets as Blue Jays fans poured across the border to get a look at their future. Vladdy Jr. didn't disappoint: In 30 games with the Bisons, he batted .336 with six homers and 16 RBIs, striking out just 10 times in 110 at-bats and drawing 15 walks.
There was change at the top of Pegula Sports and Entertainment on May 2 as Russ Brandon abruptly resigned his role as president of Pegula Sports and Entertainment, the Bills and Sabres and other holdings following an investigation into workplace behavior and allegations of personal misconduct. The move ended a nearly 21-year association with the Bills that included a controversial stint as the team's general manager. Co-owner Kim Pegula was installed to fill the president's spot for the two franchises, becoming the first woman to serve in that role in the NFL and the first in the NHL since the 1950s.
Just like at UB, there was also March Madness in Olean. Behind Atlantic 10 co-player of the year Jaylen Adams, St. Bonaventure got its first NCAA at-large bid since 2000 and was sent to the First Four in Dayton. As a No. 11 seed, the Bonnies dumped UCLA, 65-58, as Courtney Stockard poured in 26 points in their first NCAA win in 48 years. It was a measure of revenge for Bona oldtimers, who have forever rued not getting a chance at UCLA in '70 in the wake of Lanier's injury and then endured a 111-59 beating to the Bill Walton-led Bruins in 1973. The Bonnies' season ended at 26-8 with a loss to Florida two nights later.
Getzville native Emily Pfalzer had already been a member of the Buffalo Beauts of the National Women's Hockey League, but her profile in her hometown exploded as she was a member of the defense corps for the U.S. women's hockey team that defeated Canada in a shootout to win the gold medal at the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea. Pfalzer, like all of her teammates, came home a hero and received a standing ovation at KeyBank Center before dropping the puck for a ceremonial faceoff between Jack Eichel and South Buffalo native Patrick Kane of the Chicago Blackhawks. The Beauts finished their season 12-4 but could not defend their Isobel Cup title, falling to the Metropolitan Riveters in the league championship.
After being added to the Pegula Sports umbrella on Dec. 21, 2017, and becoming the first women's team owned by its market's NHL club, the Beauts have created plenty of buzz in recent months off the ice. There was the summer signing of Canadian Olympic goalie Shannon Szabados, best known for playing in the men's Southern League, and the return of Pfalzer as four Olympians dotted the roster. And most recently, the December firings of coaches and former Sabres Ric Seiling and Craig Muni, who were replaced by fellow ex-Sabre Cody McCormick. On tap for Dec. 29: The Beauts' first-ever home game in KeyBank Center, against Minnesota.
The Park School boys basketball team finished 25-5 and won the State Class A Federation championship as Noah Hutchins' buzzer-beating layup secured a 59-57 win against Albany Academy in the title game at Glens Falls. Park won the Class B title in 2015, but had limited postseason success before breaking Canisius' three-year hold on the Manhattan Cup.
The Pioneers finished the season on a 10-game winning streak and won 17 of their final 18 games. The lone loss in that span was at Canisius in February.
A program that went 0-11 during its 1999 debut at the NCAA's top level posted its first 10-win season ever and earned its third postseason trip with a Dollar General Bowl matchup against Troy in Mobile, Ala. Coach Lance Leipold's turnaround was sparked by a duo that has an NFL look in quarterback Tyree Jackson and wide receiver Anthony Johnson. The Bulls were the class of the Mid-American Conference all year but endured bitter disappointment at the MAC championship game in Detroit, where UB blew a 29-10 third-quarter lead and suffered a heartbreaking 30-29 loss to Northern Illinois.
• West Seneca East and Clymer/Sherman/Panama both advanced to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association football finals at the Carrier Dome in Syracuse, with East losing a heartbreaker to Cornwall, 21-14, while the Chautauqua County team that combined three schools drubbed Moriah, 26-6. CSP's Ty Harper earned the Western New York coach of the year award while East's Shaun Dolac was named the Buffalo News Player of the Year. East celebrated the 50th anniversary of its program with its first sectional title since 1981, ending rival West Seneca West's 24-game winning streak with a win at New Era Field that quashed West's hopes of a repeat state title.
• The Bandits named team legends John Tavares and Rich Kilgour as co-head coaches.
• Bills safety Vontae Davis infuriated fans and teammates when he retired at halftime of the team's loss to the Los Angeles Chargers in New Era Field.
• The Sabres opened the year on Jan. 1 by returning to the NHL Winter Classic for the first time since the 2008 inaugural game in then-Ralph Wilson Stadium. Playing in frigid conditions at Citi Field, the home of the New York Mets, they suffered a 3-2 overtime loss to the New York Rangers.
• The Canisius and Niagara men's basketball teams combined for 40 wins and trips to lower-level postseason tournaments. Canisius earned a share of the MAAC regular-season title for the first time since 1994 before an upset loss to Quinnipiac in the first round of the MAAC Tournament.
• The downtown ballpark got its fifth sponsored name in its 31 seasons when the Bisons announced a 10-year-deal to turn Coca-Cola Field into Sahlen Field. The first game under the new name will be Opening Day, April 4, against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.
• Buffalo Baseball Hall of Famer Dave Roberts managed the Los Angeles Dodgers to the World Series for the second straight year but lost to the Red Sox of first-year manager Alex Cora, who played three rehab games for the Herd in 2009.
• Newfane native and former Canisius coach John Beilein led Michigan to the NCAA basketball final for the second time in six years but the Wolverines fell to Villanova, 79-62, in the championship game of the Final Four in San Antonio. The loss prevented Beilein from winning his 800th career game, a milestone he reached in a season-opening win seven months later over Norfolk State.
• The Sweet Home hockey team beat West Seneca West, 7-5 to win its first state title in a dramatic showdown at HarborCenter. The victory avenged a loss to West two weeks earlier in the Section VI finals in KeyBank Center.
• The combined girls hockey team from Frontier-Lake Shore-Orchard Park completed the rare tripleheader by winning the WNY Girls Varsity Ice Hockey Federation title, the Section VI title and the state public school title.
• The Portville girls volleyball team won its fourth state title in five years with a three-set sweep of Milbrook at the final in Glens Falls.
• The St. Francis football team ended Canisius' two-year reign as Msgr. Martin Association champions and advanced to the state Catholic final for the second time in school history.
• The Chautauqua Lake softball team was the only area scholastic team to win a state championship during the spring, winning the Class C title. A team that had just one senior came together to capture its first state title.
• St. Joe's product Jaylen Morris, an undrafted player from Division II Molloy, made his NBA debut with the Atlanta Hawks and moved on to play for the Milwaukee Bucks.
• Canisius College hockey player Dylan McLaughlin, a Lancaster native, earned Atlantic Hockey Player of the Year honors and was a top ten finalist for the Hobey Baker Award, given to the nation's top player. McLaughlin also attended the New York Rangers' development camp.
Story topics: Buffalo Beauts/ Clymer/Sherman/Panama/ Emily Pfalzer/ Felisha Legette-Jack/ Jeff Skinner/ Josh Allen/ Kim Pegula/ Lance Leipold/ Nate Oats/ Rasmus Dahlin/ Russ Brandon/ University of Buffalo/ Vladimir Guerrero Jr./ West Seneca East