Can Starks handle the pressure?

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James Starks has never spent time alone in the limelight. At Niagara Falls, he was overshadowed by his basketball-toting cousin, Jonny Flynn. He’s been a talented, yet quiet second fiddle to Drew Willy in his time with the UB football team.

But that’s all about to change. With Willy gone to graduation and the football world waiting to see if the Bulls were a one-hit wonder, Starks is the guy. Plain and simple.

And while he insists he’s good to go, you wonder how he’ll handle the pressure.

“I know what I have ahead of me and I’m ready for it,” he said Thursday. “I just try to keep my composure. I just want to play within myself. I don’t want to put too much pressure on myself.”

Unfortunately, the pressure will be palpable. If UB wants to hang with big boys like UTEP and Pitt, Starks will need to explode out of the gates, taking pressure off newbie quarterback Zach Maynard.

Watching Flynn, who has already cashed in on his athletic talents, had to serve as motivation for Starks, who’s one of 45 guys on college football’s preseason Doak Walker Watch List.  How much motivation? So much so that Starks, known as an occasional no-show for off-season workouts in the past, didn’t miss one this summer. According to one member of the UB staff, he’s in the best shape of his life.

“We always talked about how good we could all be,” Starks said of conversations he had with Flynn and others. “It made me work a lot harder this year after seeing him. And nobody was as proud when we heard his name called.”

City Championship restores sporting faith

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I love sports. Always have. But even the most ardent sports fan has to wring his or her hands every blue moon, wondering how pampered professional superstars don’t reciprocate affection and loyalty.

Privilege, unfortunately, begets the expectation of privilege.

Needless to say, in a world where pro athletes are unapproachable without a PR flak, the backups leave in Hummers and the fans who paid for the experience exit in Saturns, it’s easy to have your sporting faith shaken.

Enter this week’s City Championship, a single-elimination majors youth baseball tournament that had been AWOL from Niagara Falls for 14 years. The Gazette was proud to help resurrect the tradition — getting the champs from Cayuga, Hyde Park, Midtown and Whirlpool Park together — and many thanks have to go to the Niagara Falls School District, which was gracious enough to offer Nicoletti Field as a host site. Also, we’d be remiss without thanking the Niagara Falls Umpires Association, which juggled schedules due to a Wednesday night rainout, and Dan Bazzani, who was ever-present and helped coordinate the effort.

The games were hotly contested, cheering fans lined both sides of the field, and the event gave kids a chance to soak up a spotlight typically reserved for T.O. and others. In fact, we pushed a story about the Bills signing first-round pick Eric Wood to the bottom of the front page on Friday morning, giving Whirlpool’s win over Midtown top billing.

Congrats go out to the Cayuga Yankees, who won the crown with a 2-0 thriller on Friday night behind the efforts of Dominic Gualano, Nick Forcucci and others.

But my favorite moment came before the final game, when I rushed to the field about 90 minutes early to set up a sound system. In right field, Whirlpool’s Brianna Dewitt loosened up, uniform on and game-tucked, beaming with a smile from ear-to-ear nearly an hour before she had to be there.

For all the steroid scandals, nasty arrests and utter greed that sports can paste on front pages like our own, there is still something supremely magical about the anticipation of the big game.

And big, of course, is relative. If it’s big to you, it’s big.

If you ask me, this week’s tournament was as big as it gets.

NU AD gets two minutes for lamest excuse

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We’re all for the Niagara men’s hockey team being able to play the schedule it deems necessary, but let’s give Ed McLaughlin two minutes for lamest excuse when the Niagara athletics director was asked why the hockey series between Niagara and Canisius won’t continue this year.

“We were short on home games this year and didn’t want to put another road game on the schedule for us in terms of our student-athletes and travel,” McLaughlin told another media outlet. “We don’t want to put kids on the road so much they don’t have time to be college students.”

Really? Put them on the road so much as in 25 extra minutes?

Niagara has long felt superior to Canisius in hockey and rightfully so. For years, the Purple Eagles reigned supreme in facility, scholarships and played in what was regarded by insiders as a better, albeit smaller league.

The feud has gotten hotter in recent years as Canisius has closed the gap, which hasn’t sat well with Niagara, its fiercest rival in every other sport.
And the decision to keep the Griffs off the schedule this year makes sense — when College Hockey America dismantles at season’s end and Niagara makes the jump to Atlantic Hockey, the two teams will forever be bound together in a bigger league and getting games against power conference teams will become even trickier.

So, the schedule is Niagara’s prerogative, plain and simple. No explanation necessary.

But to say that “travel” would be an obstacle to playing a team that’s less than 30 minutes away is silly. We’re pretty sure the Purple Eagles could have been safely tucked into their dorms and apartments by 11 p.m., even if a game at Buff State went into overtime.

The good news? All this drama should make the first AHA clash between the two squads that much more volatile when the 2010-11 season rolls around.

Still not getting Hamilton threat

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I’m obviously in the minority here, but my trusty calculator and I still can’t grasp how a National Hockey League team in Hamilton spells certain doom for Buffalo.

The Sabres say that 15 percent of their season ticket holders are Canadian and that one in every four fannies that grace the HSBC Arena seats come from over the border. If the Sabres insist a new Hamilton team be shifted into their division — and the league will likely grant Buffalo any and all wishes — that means four Hamilton-Buffalo games would be played on this side of the river.

OK, follow the math here for a sec — if, say, a well-off Port Colborne hockey fan falls for Jim Balsillie’s new team, wouldn’t keeping seats in Buffalo make financial sense? Assuming all four home games are deemed platinum under the Sabres’ variable pricing scheme (Toronto games are), the savings would be immense. To buy 100 level II seats, for example, the season-ticket price last year was $46 per contest. The price for platinum games on a single-game basis was $185.

Number crunching time — to buy tickets for the four Hamilton games would run $740. Season tickets in the same level are $1,886.

Let’s see, four games for $740 or all 41 for $1,886? Canadians are pretty bright, right? I mean, they figured out this Tragically Hip thing way before we did. I’m assuming they have calculators, too.

Throw in the four Leafs games and that’s $1,480 for the eight games against teams from Southern Ontario. To get the other 33 games would only run another 400 bucks. And since the club essentially pimps unwanted tickets out through an online service called My Sabres Tickets, getting rid of the rest is pretty easy.

One of the reasons so many Canadians have season tickets now is because the Sabres have priced their beloved Leafs games so ridiculously high that it makes more sense to buy the whole thing. Having a team in Hamilton — and pricing similarly — should entice more Canadians to do the same.

And let’s take a peek at the Hamilton situation. If Balsillie ends up paying over $200 million for the team, another $100 million to the NHL as a relocation fee, then maybe another $100 million to renovate Copps Coliseum, think these seats will be cheap? Hardly.

He didn’t become a billionaire thrice over by making haphazard decisions with his wallet. There must be a big demand for this team. Big demand equals big ticket prices.

That means Buffalo would still be a smart alternative for fans who can’t mortgage the house for a Saturday night of pucks and punches.

Was ’Cuse bad for Harris?

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Believe it or not, we’re starting to change our tune on Paul Harris, a manchild who might have found the wrong fit in Syracuse under coach Jim Boeheim.

Everyone knows Harris’ biggest asset is his physique — simply getting out and running past and over people. It’s the same on defense, he’s quick enough to stay on guards while strong enough to handle smaller forwards.

But in Boeheim’s system, Harris always seemed out of sorts. Playing in the famous 2-3 zone, Harris’ flaws were exposed. He’s not a cerebral player, so working through switches in the complex defense never suited his style. On offense, the Orange rarely found a way to use his slashing skills, instead often opting for deep threes from Donte Greene or Eric Devendorf.

We’re not knocking Boeheim’s system — it’s a proven commodity with the right players. And we’re not giving Harris an out — he hardly seemed committed to molding his game to the SU style.

But maybe we can chalk this one up to a guy who went to the wrong school. If recent raves from scouts at NBA tryouts are an indication, Harris might still have a chance to display those skills he showed off nightly at Niagara Falls’ Wolvearena on a big stage again.

Demske not fit for baseball

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This by no means gives the Niagara baseball team an out for this week’s no-show in a crucial three-game set at Canisius, but watching a college baseball game at the Demske Sports Complex is like watching two guys play pool with SuperBalls.

The combination of aluminum bats and a bouncy turf forces infielders to play so far back that even routine plays seem extraordinary.

Watching Niagara shortstop Jason Cramer put every ounce of mustard on throws after standard two-hoppers proved he was well out of his comfort zone. And the turf all but destroyed the confidence of third baseman Trevor Rutkowski, who had three errors on Friday alone.

Offense is Canisius’ forte while pitching and defense have been Niagara’s hallmarks. That played into the strength of the Griffs, who have a beautiful athletic complex, but not a baseball field.

The point is this — give Canisius credit for capably defending its home turf, but seeing the two teams play on a more natural surface (like Trenton’s Waterfront Park in the MAAC Tournament) will be a truer gauge of two diametrically opposite styles.

Fewer locals at N-Trip

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As great as it is to see Niagara Falls’ Matt Clingersmith take the Niagara County Community College baseball team to new heights, it’s odd to see few or no locals in the starting lineup each day.

Is it N-Trip’s goal to be a national power, or to give local kids an outlet to play?

The vision of the athletics department continues to shift and while I appreciate the ambition, I’m not sure it fulfills the college’s true purpose.

Even if the Trailblazers become world-beaters, they’ll never be a big draw.

But giving local kids a chance to hone their skills and possibly move on to four-year schools carves a much-needed niche in Niagara County.