1/12/2017 10:51:00 AM / Alex Beilman
If you follow lacrosse, you’ve definitely seen the goal. If you watch SportsCenter, you’ve almost ceraintly seen the goal. If you have a television, a computer, or a smartphone, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve the seen the goal. Just getting edged out by Odell Beckham Jr.’s one-handed catch in ESPY voting is a mark of its quality and absurdity.
Buffalo Bandits forward Blaze Riorden is notable for more than just his unique first name. He signed with the Buffalo Bandits as a free agent in the offseason, but his success in outdoor collegiate lacrosse is well documented.
His most famous play, however, comes not from his play between the pipes – where he started as a field lacrosse goalie for the University at Albany -- but in front of the other team’s goal.
Riorden, like most, did start as an attack player on the lacrosse field. He was gifted with a very hard shot and good offensive instincts. It’s his hard shot that led him to tending goal for the first time.
“In third or fourth or grade, I started off as an attack. I hit our goalie in the hand, and I broke his hand,” Riorden recalls. “My dad was the coach and he told me that since I broke his hand, I had to play goalie the rest of the year.”
However, it was not a prospect that scared the newly minted netminder. In fact, he felt hindered by the excessive amount of protective equipment he was forced to wear for his first practice.
“[My dad] had me padded up from head-to-toe. I told him that I couldn’t move and I didn’t like all the pads. So he told me if I got hit, I couldn’t cry because it was my choice,” Riorden said. “I got hit a few times and it didn’t bother me too much. Naturally, it felt comfortable and I just stuck with it from there.”
From that point, Riorden chose to embrace his unexpected role and continued as a goaltender through his youth lacrosse and high school years. He would still, however, regularly hone his forward skills in summer leagues and pick-up games with his friends.
His dedication to the craft would end up paying off, as he earned a spot with the University at Albany Great Danes out of high school. Albany head coach Scott Marr said he was impressed with Riorden’s unique combination of skills.
“When I recruited him, I recruited him as a goalie. I also recruited him to play man-up. I thought Blaze was going to be a guy to do that,” Marr said. “He did it one game in his sophomore year. He did it against Bryant and scored, but we lost the game by a goal.
“I think he felt the distraction of playing man-up and coming out of the goal took him away from what he was doing in the goal so he didn’t want to do it anymore.”
That was the case for Riorden until that memorable day in May of 2015 in an NCAA first-round matchup with Cornell.
With less than 20 seconds left in the third quarter, Blaze lived up to his first name and went on a rush out of his own goal and into the offensive zone.
“I scooped the ball up and took off running towards open space, I was looking to see who was open. I took it over the midfield line hoping one of the attack would pop out,” Riorden said.
“I wanted him to go. He actually stopped at the top of the box right in front of our bench. I don’t know if you can hear me [on the video] or not, but I screamed at him to go,” Marr said.
Heeding his coach’s advice, Riorden continued his run down the field. The 6-foot-2, 215-pound mass of purple-and-yellow barreling toward the Cornell end took the defense by surprise, and Riorden used his latent offensive skills to lead him to pay dirt.
“My lacrosse instincts and my lacrosse IQ took over, and I was able to split the double team. I saw the defenseman come at me with a full head of steam,” he said. “Being a bigger boy, I didn’t know if I was going to be able to beat him with speed. I threw a stick fake that actually tripped him up. I found myself about seven yards out. I just took the shot.
“I ended up sprinting back to the goal. I wanted to celebrate with my teammates, but I think everyone assumed I was exhausted. I wanted to prove to everyone that I could make it back to the goal.”
The play took off, earning a spot in that year’s ESPY awards play of the year bracket, where it lost to the aforementioned catch from Beckham Jr. However, it was a play that cemented Riroden’s legacy as a Great Dane, and garnered him – and the sport of lacrosse – national attention.
Although he gained his experience in field lacrosse, box lacrosse has always been a part of Riroden’s life. Growing up in Fairport, N.Y., his family had season tickets for the Rochester Knighthawks.
“I remember watching guys like John Grant [Jr.] when he was younger, and Shawn Williams, and Mike Accursi and those guys,” Riorden said. “It’s something my dad mentioned to me a couple of days ago, he said, ‘I’ve never seen anybody so intent to watch a lacrosse game. Since the time you could walk, you would stay in your seat. You wouldn’t even leave during intermission.’”
It was Albany teammate Ty Thompson that introduced him to playing box lacrosse in their freshman year at school.
“He invited me down to the Reservation the summer of my freshman year,” he said. “It just so happened the junior B tryouts were going on when I was there.”
Thompson encouraged Riroden to try out as a forward, knowing that he had offensive ability and could contribute. He ended up quitting his job and played box lacrosse there for the rest of the summer.
“The first summer was a learning experience to say the least,” he said.
The lessons took well, as each summer playing for the Akwesasne Indians saw Riorden improve at the indoor game. He broke out in the 2015 playoffs, scoring 17 goals and notching 16 assists, as the Indians claimed the Founder’s Cup.
Now, Riorden hopes to make his mark on the floor of KeyBank Center. Understanding what was expected of him at the NLL level, he spent a portion of the summer working with a personal trainer to prepare himself for the physical nature of the pro game.
“I knew coach Cordingley took conditioning very seriously. I’ve always been a little oversized, but I’ve always had a quick first step,” Riorden said. “I really took it upon myself after not getting drafted, so I went to a personal trainer for four days a week for three months. I lost about 35-40 pounds and got myself in shape. It’s definitely paid off.”
When he was signed, the initial plan was to have him work on his skills as a member of the practice squad. However, as with much of Riroden’s career, things didn’t go according to plan.
With Daryl Veltman at home with his wife and newborn child, and Anthony Malcolm suffering from a lower-body injury, Riroden was pressed into his first regular-season NLL action in the 2017 season opener.
“He’s very raw. We threw him to wolves in the first game. We see a bright future for him and we think there’s some promise,” Bandits general manager Steve Dietrich said of being forced to play the rookie. “I thought Blaze did a great job. We probably asked too much of him, but I thought he did a good job. He showed that he has some natural offensive instincts.”
Riroden did fairly well for a surprise debut, contributing an assist and four loose balls. But the loss to the Colorado Mammoth left him feeling disappointed.
“Things didn’t go as well as we were hoping because we came out with a loss. Our coach always preaches that it’s not one man on offense, it’s five guys working as a unit. The stats speak for themselves, but it’s all about getting the wins,” Riorden said.
Regardless of whether he retains a spot on the roster or he spends more time on the practice squad, those around the young forward know that he has what it takes to succeed at the next level.
“His skill level and his IQ is just uncanny. His character alone, he was great in the locker room. He brings that same kind of energy and enthusiasm to the field or to the floor. He just has a way about him, he’s really something special,” Marr said.
“I really like his ability to get to the net, his willingness to do whatever it takes to get to the net and create opportunities to score,” Bandits offensive coach John Tavares said. “I was also impressed with his ability to get open and create space for his teammates. I was impressed with how he did in camp. He beat out some good players to earn a spot on the team.”
As for Riorden, his focus is not on his spot on the depth chart, but continuing to improve his own game and helping the team win any way he can.
“I’m just going to keep pushing and try to keep up. I’m going to continue to be the best player I can be,” Riroden said. “Just to win, that’s the expectation going into any season in any sport. You put in all the hard work in the offseason and you put the work in to win lacrosse games.
“If I put up 100 points, great. If I put up two points, great. Winning games is the goal for this year.”