Best of WNY 2011: It's the people III
Courtesy of the Green Bay Packers
Favorite media personality
The voice of Sabres play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret is as much a part of the team’s identity as its (thankfully) restored classic logo and the French Connection. Like legendary baseball announcers Vince Scully (Los Angeles Dodgers) and Ernie Harwell (Detroit Tigers), Jeanneret’s roots in radio (he added television duties in 1995 after nearly a quarter-century on radio) have given him a poetic, almost painterly ability with words, able to describe the fast moving game of hockey with deft, evocative verbal strokes. Add a gift for signature phrases—“top shelf where momma hides the cookies!”—and you’ve got a certified future Hall of Famer. The news that he’ll be scaling back his workload in 2011–12 makes honoring Jeanneret even more fitting.
The 2011 season may have ended in disappointing fashion, but this, the Year of Pegula, saw the finest coaching of Ruff’s long career. Consider: Even with an awful start to the campaign, a back-to-earth Ryan Miller, a sophomore-slumping Tyler Myers, an injured Derek Roy, the continued existence of Tim Connolly, and an ownership in flux, the Sabres were one of the league’s best teams during the second half of the season. Ruff not only steadied the ship, but found a way for youngsters like Nathan Gerbe and Tyler Ennis to flourish. When Terry Pegula took over and crowned Ruff his continued man behind the bench, it was hard not to get excited about the Sabres all over again.
Favorite college sports team
In a world of mighty Orangemen, Blue Devils, and Cornhuskers, it’s easy to take the Bulls for granted. It’s difficult, after all, to compete with the crème de la crème of NCAA basketball and football. But the Bulls have managed to make themselves tailgate-worthy, thanks to some smart hires, good recruiting, and savvy promotion. In recent years, the Bulls have finally rammed their way into a rarified spot: Buffalo’s College Team. If they find a way to start being consistently successful on the court and the gridiron, so much the better.
Best non-mainstream sports team
Queen City Roller Girls
In the mere half-decade of its existence, this homegrown league of next-generation roller derby teams has skated its way into our hearts, bigtime. While this high-impact sport is huge all over the country right now, there are few things WNYers love more than rooting for a bunch of hardscrabble, bootstrappin’ underdogs. Being able to cheer on rock-’em-sock-’em packs of “Devil Dollies” and “Suicidal Saucies” just makes it all the better—and the action spills way past the rink, into afterparties, media stardom (including the cover of one of our own issues), and art exhibitions. Best of all, the whole phenomenon is a case of empowerment on wheels. You go, girls! www.qcrg.net
Best pro athlete with real WNY roots
A cliché it may be, but a Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have come up with a better WNY sports tale than James Starks’s journey from Niagara Falls High basketball hero to UB football star and Super Bowl champion. When injuries struck the Green Bay Packers’ running back corps, rookie Starks not only stepped in, but flourished, becoming an essential cog in the Packer machine and turning countless Falls folk into Cheeseheads. It’s a true Cinderella hometown-guy-makes-good story, and for Bills fans, it’s worth noting that Starks, a sixth-round pick, accomplished more in Year One than first-rounder C. J. Spiller. Nice one, Bills.
Favorite high school sports team
East Aurora Girls’ Cross Country
From Buffalo to Albany, upstate New York is home to some of the best girls’ high school cross country teams in the nation. In a grueling sport that demands year-round training, Coach Walt McGlaughlin’s team has won six straight Class B state championships and counting, even placing high in national rankings along the way. There are few better ways to enjoy our beautiful autumn scenery than to take a ride to East Aurora and watch the girls run one of the best cross-country courses for spectators in the region. And as a bonus, the boys’ team is almost as good as the girls.
Local hero of 2010
The arrival of a new owner of the Buffalo Sabres boosted the psyche of area residents far beyond the hockey arena. Here was someone with the resources to do just about anything one might imagine in life. What he chose to do was become one of us: an unpretentious, unabashed fan. Even at $189 million and counting, the deal wasn’t a financial transaction—it was a stamp of approval for all of us for whom being a Western New Yorker is an enthusiastic choice, not the short-end of life’s stick. For those of us in the region tired of being seen as merely a source of revenue—whether by sports team or casino owners, or politicians—Pegula is a breath of fresh air.