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Athletes, coaches moved by Games' pageantry

AMHERST, N.Y. - As she marched into UB Stadium for last night's Opening Ceremonies of the 2010 Empire State Games, Cassie Betancourt admitted she was overwhelmed.

The normally unflappable goalie for Long Island's women's scholastic soccer team couldn't find the words for her Olympic-like experience. "It was incredible. I can't even begin to describe it," said Betancourt of Syosset. "The crowd, being with the other athletes from your region, meeting so many different people. It was very cool."

It was also very hot on the University of Buffalo football field, site of the ceremonies that began with a speech by former Bills All-Pro special-teams player Steve Tasker, included a concert by Third Eye Blind and concluded with a rousing fireworks display.

Not only did the event begin in Long Island-like heat and humidity, but all 6,000 of the athletes wore black warm-up suits trimmed in white and gray, compliments of corporate sponsor First Niagara. The major Western New York bank donated $500,000 to insure that the financially troubled Games returned after being postponed last year by state budget cuts.

According to Long Island ESG coordinator Bob Kenney, next year's Games, scheduled for Rochester, are not a certainty. "The city is ready, but we need corporate funding," Kenney said. The 75-year-old veteran of these Games added, "In my opinion, Buffalo always does a great job." He estimated the crowd at more than 10,000, which added to the athletes' enjoyment of the grand opening.

"This must be what the Olympics feels like," said Robert Wu of Jericho, a steeplechaser on L.I.'s scholastic track team. "It's a feeling I've never had before."

The pageantry was familiar to Richie Renz, 43, of Lynbrook who is competing in his 19th consecutive Empire State Games in the Open division of Greco-Roman wrestling. "An overwhelming experience, especially since this will probably be my last year," said Renz, a JV wrestling coach at Lynbrook who has won two golds, four silvers and a bronze in his career. "Being with the other athletes and coaches and seeing all the people standing and cheering and taking pictures as we walked by was exhilarating."

The first Long Islander to enter the stadium was Eileen Shultis of Levittown, an economics teacher in the Freeport school district who was the L.I. flag-bearer. "I guess it's because I've been coaching bowling since 1995," Shultis said with a laugh. "It was very exciting. I saw people I knew in the stands and I was shocked to run into one of my students, who is on the Long Island team."

That student, Anthony Herring, a Greco-Roman wrestler, said he was "shocked to see my favorite teacher. I didn't know she'd be here and there she was, carrying the flag. This is just a great feeling - seeing so many pure athletes all together in one place. And meeting people from different parts of the state."

Tasker addressed the geographic diversity when he grabbed the microphone just before Three Eye Blind took the stage and shouted, "Where is the Adirondack region? Where is the Central region? Where is the Hudson Valley region? Where is the Long Island region? Where is the New York City region? Where is our very own region from Western New York?"

After the athletes tried to outshout each other, Tasker delivered this message for them to take into the four days of competition that begins Thursday and concludes on Sunday: "Show us what you got!"

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