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2009: The Year in Sports

We may not win many championships, but we have our moments

Our favorite column of the year is when we take a look back at the year and reflect on a few special moments in sports. Despite the disappointing results by our local teams here in Buffalo, one can always find those momentous events that keeps usengaged and riveted.

We end the year, our sixth here at the sports desk at Artvoice, by wishing, you, our readers, all the best of the holiday season and a prosperous new year. Thank you for your support and we look forward to seeing you at Sabres and Bandits games at the arena, at Coca Cola Field this coming season, or crossing paths on the road somewhere as our Ultimate Sports Road Trip journeys continue.

The UB Bulls—yes, UB—head to a bowl

Who wasn’t excited about the 2008 edition of the UB Bulls football team? After years of irrelevance, Coach Turner Gill’s patience, persistence and recruiting finally paid off, and the Bulls managed to win the Mid American Conference Championship and a berth in the International Bowl in Toronto on January 3.

It was truly a moment to savor and celebrate. After all, it had been 50 years since UB had been invited to post-season play, and even that did not go well. The 1958 Bulls forfeited the game down in Orlando, rather than participate in an event where their black players would not be allowed to participate, thanks to Florida’s then strict segregation laws.

All this and more became part of the pageantry at the Rogers Centre, as members of the 1958 squad came back to be honored and to reminisce about that era. A largely partisan blue-and-white-clad Buffalo crowd filled much of the stadium to give their Bulls an emotional lift.

Early on it was all UB. A fumble recovery by Ray Anthony Long in the end zone resulted in one touchdown, and James Stark’s four-yard run got yet another, and midway through the second quarter it was 20-10 Buffalo.

But the stronger and more balanced Connecticut Huskies team would go on to score 28 unanswered points, most in the second half, to seal a 38-20 victory.

Still, nobody from Buffalo seemed to be complaining. For one day, college sports in Buffalo was truly in the national spotlight, and across living rooms and sports bars across Western New York, it was not the Bills, but the Bulls, who were the toast of the town.

For the Sabres, a magical and emotional night

The league-leading San Jose Sharks came into town on February 13 for what would be a big test for the Buffalo Sabres, still very much in the hunt for a playoff spot in the tight Eastern Conference standings.

This would be no ordinary evening.

Less than 24 hours earlier, Continental flight 3407 had dropped from the sky and onto a quiet residential street in Clarence. Fifty people perished, and the entire community was in shock and mourning.

But the game would go on. The team held a long and poignant moment of silence before the opening faceoff. The arena lights were dimmed, the scoreboard and ribbon boards darkened. Never before had the building been so silent.

Then on to the game. Buffalo’s early 3-0 lead would be quickly eradicated by San Jose’s potent scoring attack. Yet incredibly, Jason Pominville would find the net with just four seconds left in regulation, ending his 17-game scoring drought. The noise in the arena was deafening, with playoff fervor in the air. This game would go to five shootout rounds, with Derek Roy scoring and then Ryan Miller making a backflip save on Milan Michalek to seal the win. Final: 6-5 Buffalo.

“We needed this one for our fans,” said Coach Lindy Ruff, who along with many of the players lives close to the crash site. “A lot of good things happened in this game and I’ll leave it at that.”

Triple play! Triple play!

It might have been one wretched and forgettable baseball season at Coca Cola Field this past summer, but don’t tell that to the lucky fans who were in attendance on Tuesday, September 1, as the Buffalo Bisons were hosting the Rochester Red Wings.

In the top of the third inning, the Bisons turned a triple play, one of the rarest feats in baseball and only the second such play ever in the history of the downtown ballpark.

Rochester players Jason Pridie and Dustin Martin got on base to lead off the inning, thanks to a base hit and a walk. Then came Rochester second baseman Steven Tolleson to the plate. He hit a line drive to Bisons shortstop Argenis Reyes to record the first out. With the runners going, Reyes flipped the ball over to second base and second baseman Luis Rivera for the second out, and Rivera relayed the throw to first baseman Mike Lamb to complete the bang bang bang sequence.

Despite, the excitement of the moment, and yes, the play made it to ESPN’s “Top Ten” the following morning, the Bisons went down to defeat, and Manager Ken Oberkfell shrugged off the importance of the play.

Had Oberkfell ever been part of a triple play, either as a player or a manager? “Twice as a player, both times in St. Louis,” replied Oberkfell. Then he smiled and sheepishly admitted, “I hit into a triple play once, it was in Spring Training, but since it was just exhibition, that’s a good thing I guess.”

The Aud comes tumbling down

A typical day in downtown Buffalo this past spring and summer had spectators watching through the fencing as Buffalo’s Memorial Auditorium finally was demolished, to make way for the new Canal Side development at the Inner Harbor.

Even 13 years after the building held its last event, people wanted to come and see, to show their kids where they spent their own childhood moments, to reminisce. Each time a truss came down, it was a media event. The scoreboard, lodged up against the roof, came crashing to the ground and broke into many pieces, yet another powerful reminder of the gross incompetence of the city’s Masiello administration, which took no steps to catalogue, preserve, and mine important pieces of this building for future use, thus relegating much of the Aud’s vital pieces to a landfill.

Despite the sale of several hundred blue seats, then the harvesting of yet more seats from the oranges, people came to the demolition site to get a chunk of anything that they could get their hands on. Demolition workers were happy to oblige, and some bold memorabilia seekers even followed the dump trucks as they hauled the building debris away to get their hands on artifacts from the Aud.

Meanwhile, in New York City, two hallowed venues—Yankee Stadium and Shea Stadium—were also demolished in 2009. Every chunk of the buildings, every seat, every concession canopy, even toilet fixtures were marketed and sold to an eager public, further emphasizing that here in Western New York, idiocy in the governmental sector knows no bounds.

The Bills signed who?

It seemed to be a typically boring and unexciting offseason for the Bills. Fans were still in shock about the collapse of the 2008 season and somewhat irate that the Bills remained committed to their head coac, Dick Jauron. Free agent after free agent came through town during signing period, only to tell the team “Thanks, but no thanks” and sign elsewhere—Laverneous Coles to Cincinnati, Fred Taylor to New England. It was the same old story once again at One Bills Drive.

So imagine the shock and disbelief upon hearing the news that the talented and controversial wide receiver Terrell Owens had signed a one-year deal with the team. For most, it took a while to believe—but indeed there he was back in March, on the press podium with his Bills jersey. Fans came to the airport to give him a rousing welcome, and Mayor Byron Brown was so excited that he gave Owens the key to the city—an award on par with Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize in the “What the heck did I do to get this?” category.

On the field, things didn’t turn out so well for Owens and the Bills. We’d see flashes of what made him great over the years for other teams. But awful quarterback play and a hideous offensive line didn’t help in the Bills’ drive to end their long playoff drought. In the end, TO was far more helpful at the box office and with sales of team merchandise than on the field.

Almost, but not invited to the big dance

Lost in the shuffle of the Owens signing in early March was the drive by two local men’s college hoop teams to get to the NCAA Tournament. UB had a solid season on the court, finishing 21-11 and tying for the top of the MAC’s Eastern Division with Bowling Green, and making it to the finals of the MAC tournament before falling to Akron 65-53.

But the team with the best season was up on Monteagle Ridge, as coach Joe Michalic led the Purple Eagles through another 20-win season, gunning for the team’s third NCAA bid in five years. In fact, Niagara would leave the court with a win 26 times in the 2008-09 season. But as good as they were, it wouldn’t be enough to get a bid, as they fell in the MAAC Championship game to Siena by only seven points on Siena’s home floor in Albany—and thanks to their comparatively weak schedule, wouldn’t get an at-large bid to the big dance. Siena would go on to the tournament and win its first-round game over Ohio State before losing to top-seeded Louisville in a tough game for the Cardinals.

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