NYC teams react to Empire expire

Former St. John’s women’s soccer player Laura Burlacu started playing in the Empire State Games as a high-school student at Newcomers eight years ago. Photo by Damion Reid/Five Boro Sports

A week after the state gave them no funding, the Empire State Games are likely to be canceled this summer. Hudson Valley, the region that was supposed to host the country’s largest amateur sporting event, has pulled out, the Associated Press reported Friday.

The 2009 Hudson River Valley Empire State Games Local Organizing Committee is unhappy about a proposal requiring high-school athletes to pay a participation fee, according to the AP.

The state announced last week that funding for the Empires will end in the next fiscal year, beginning in April, due to the state’s huge budget deficit. Starting this year, the agency says participation fees will be set at $285 for high-school athletes at the summer games. Previously, there was no participation fee.

“It would be a tragedy if this funding is to be cut and the Empire State Games changes in any way or ends,” said Peter Goyco, the coordinator of the New York City region basketball program and a coach with the NYC men’s open team. “I also feel that there will not be many scholastic athletes in any sport who will be able to pay [$285] to participate in the games. To take away that experience or opportunity from a young athlete is really sad.”

Along with the added fee for high-school athletes, all open and masters competitions, as well as scholastic boxing, were suspended for this year’s Games.

“The Empire State Games have been the highlight of my last seven or eight summers,” said Laura Burlacu, who has competed in scholastic and open women’s soccer for nearly a decade. “Eliminating soccer for the summer games would be devastating for a lot of female soccer players who, like myself, look forward to the practices and the games.”

Before Hudson Valley decided it wouldn’t host this year, there was already a strong uprising against the fiscal changes, which would cut the number of athletes from 6,000 to 2,800. There is a facebook.com group that began last week entitled “Save the Empire State Games” and 1,288 people have joined.

“The Empire State Games was something I looked forward to in the summer,” said Alicja Pawelec, who played the last two years for the NYC women’s scholastic volleyball team. “The atmosphere was always great, because athletes from all over the state gathered to share their love of sports. I think since they’re going to start charging for it, a lot of people won’t go; I know I won’t.”

The Empire State Games began in 1978 and have operated on an annual budget of $3 million, most of it from New York State. The 2009 version of New York’s Olympic Games was scheduled to be held at venues throughout Orange, Ulster and Dutchess Counties from July 22 to 26. The games were linked to celebrations marking the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson’s voyage.

“It would be a shame,” said Adelphi men’s soccer coach Carlo Acquista, who has been involved for 10 years as a player, coach and now administrator for the NYC region. “You promote the Games so much as a great recruiting tool. It takes away another opportunity for our kids from New York City to be seen.”

St. John’s women’s volleyball coach Joanne Persico-Smith has competed in the Empire State Games the past 26 years, dating back to her time at St. Francis Prep HS. When she received an e-mail last week about the fiscal cuts, she was disheartened.

“It’s really shocking,” Persico-Smith said. “It’s a tradition and a part of history. I’m saddened to think they’ll be having them differently from the way they’re meant to be.”

This summer, though, they might not happen at all.

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