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USA Lacrosse Magazine
| Nov 23, 2021

Blaze Riorden: An Everyman MVP

By Nelson Rice

Blaze Riorden’s eyes grew wide long before he stared down any shots in the Premier Lacrosse League championship game. They darted around the locker room at Audi Field. At times, they focused on the yellow lacrosse ball that he held in his hands and smacked against his arms and legs. 

Riorden’s friends call this aspect of his pre-game routine “crazy eyes.” He likens it to his best impression of Gritty — the now iconic and slightly creepy Philadelphia Flyers mascot. 

“The wider my eyes are, the more I think I'll be able to see the ball,” Riorden explained during the PLL’s inaugural season in 2019. “That's why I do it. It's just a superstition, like a boxer who punches himself in the chin before a fight.” 

Anyone in the crowd at Audi Field on Sept. 19 could see Riorden’s impact during a title game rematch between the Chaos and two-time defending champion Whipsnakes. The three-time Oren Lyons Goalie of the Year and newly minted 2021 PLL MVP made 15 saves (63 percent) to help the Chaos secure a 14-9 win. Riorden was named the MVP of the title game as well, but showed a short memory in the post-game press conference. 

“I only won one trophy,” he said with his arms wrapped around teammates Josh Byrne and Mark Glicini. “It’s the championship trophy. That’s all I cared about.” 

It was a fitting reply for the goalie who earns as much praise for his character as he does his consistency. Whose perspective extends outside of the cage. Who sheds his goalie pads to play on the floor as a forward for the Philadelphia Wings in the National Lacrosse League. Who when he received the PLL’s highest individual honor told those in attendance at the National Museum of the American Indian, “This game is the MVP to me.” 

“He does it his way,” Chaos defenseman Jarrod Neumann said. “It’s authentic. It’s real. No gimmicks. That’s what makes him special.”

MIDWAY THROUGH THE PLL SEASON, Riorden visited Chaos teammates Josh Byrne, Dhane Smith, Chris Cloutier, Ian MacKay and Chase Fraser in Buffalo. Out at dinner one night, someone recognized the quintet. After the fan discussed the prospects for the upcoming Bandits season, for whom all five also play, he turned to Riorden.

“Oh, and what do you do?” he asked.

“I play lacrosse with these guys,” Riorden replied. 

He’s grown accustomed to the doubts. “When you look at Blaze, you don’t say to yourself, ‘Wow, there's an unbelievable professional athlete,’” Albany coach Scott Marr said in a PLL video feature about Riorden. 

It only takes seven minutes — the duration of Riorden’s 2021 highlight reel — to learn otherwise. Listed at 6 feet, 215 pounds, Riorden long believed his size was the only thing holding him back. “I just always thought, no one’s really gonna see me for a legitimate athlete if my stomach’s bigger than everyone else's,” he said.

Now 27, Riorden, whose teammates sometimes call him “Big Sexy,” said he takes pride in his size. He uses it to his advantage. He compares his legs that powered him to a sub five-second 40-yard dash to hydraulic pumps.

In a String King ad titled “Blaze Riordens,” he even gave voice to the doubters, acting as the dueling indoor and outdoor lacrosse versions of himself.

“Hey Swiss, you ready for some shots?”

“Shots? I already ate breakfast, but I’ll take a couple more muffins.” 

“Everybody knows you don't need any more muffins.”

At a time when the sport is searching for a new face of the game following Paul Rabil’s retirement (see page 46), Riorden represents its everyman ideal.

“The game is meant for all shapes and sizes, all ethnicities,” he said in the PLL video feature. “The great equalizer is that stick that you carry. That’s the beauty of this game.”

Looking around at the hardware — all three PLL championships, Goalie of the Year awards and two of the past three PLL MVP trophies — displayed in the house he shared with Whipsnakes attackman and Wings teammate Matt Rambo in the Fairmount neighborhood of Philadelphia, Riorden remarked, "Maybe thick is the way to go."

A little more than a week after the PLL final, Riorden closed on a new townhouse. It’s 500 yards from his previous one and still only a short walk from the Philadelphia Museum of Art with its iconic steps. He’s at a point in life where he wants to set down roots. The city that loves an underdog  suits him despite the fact he’s an upstate New York guy and a Bills fan. Riorden founded and coaches three indoor teams through BR10 box lacrosse to help the game grow in Philly.

“He’s one of the best leaders in the sport,” said Chaos long-stick midfielder Troy Reh, who also played with Riorden at Albany. “He’s someone you want to run through a wall for.”

WHO BETTER TO LEAD A TEAM that fed off upending expectations than a goalie who defied them throughout his career? Seeded sixth in the playoffs, the Chaos will be quick to remind you only 3.2 percent of fans voted for them to win the title at the start of the postseason. It's their pinned tweet.

The team dropped its first three games of the season by a combined 12 goals, including a 13-7 loss to the Whipsnakes the opening weekend. Riorden averaged 18 saves in those contests. The only game action he missed was the final minute of a 16-10 loss to Atlas after he dislocated his left kneecap in a collision with Trevor Baptiste.

Chaos coach Andy Towers said he at first feared the injury might be career-ending. Instead, Riorden sat out the PLL All-Star Game, then led the league in saves and fueled Chaos to a 5-1 record the rest of the way.  “He is still a better teammate and leader than he is a lacrosse player, which is crazy to think,” Towers said.

Riorden first got on Marr’s radar by scoring instead of stopping shots. At the Syracuse Shootout the summer before Riorden's senior year at Fairport (N.Y.) High School, he tallied three goals at attack in the first game Marr watched him play. When Marr learned Riorden played goalie, he got visions of Brett Queener, another unconventional Albany goalie who loved to come out of the cage. Both played extra-man offense for the Great Danes. Riorden, who always warms up his backup in the PLL, went on to gain national recognition for his coast-to-coast goal against Cornell in the 2015 NCAA tournament.

Riorden soon reminded Marr of another larger-than-life personality he coached as an assistant at Maryland. Brian Dougherty made 23 saves each in the 1995 NCAA semifinals and championship game, earning championship MVP honors even though the Terps lost to Syracuse.

Riorden grew up watching Dougherty, a two-time gold medalist with the U.S. team and two-time Major League Lacrosse Goalie of the Year, play for and against the Rochester Rattlers. The similarities are easy to spot.

“Just look at the eye test,” said Dougherty, now the coach at Springside Chestnut Hill Academy in Philadelphia, where Riorden was the offensive coordinator this past spring. “We’re both big — I guess they’re calling it ‘thick boy’ — left-handed goalies. We’re both sneaky athletic. We both created our own styles and stuck to them.”

BEFORE THE CHAOS’ GAME AGAINST THE ARCHERS AT ALBANY during the final weekend of the regular season, Riorden ordered a catered dinner for the entire team from Buca di Beppo — the family-style Italian restaurant that’s a staple for the Great Danes on the nights before games.

PLL players typically take packaged meals back to their hotel rooms, but that night the Chaos shared stories and laughs over spicy rigatoni, chicken parmesan and Milanese, two types of salad and seven trays of garlic bread.

“This is my home,” Riorden told his teammates when they offered to chip in. “If this was your home, I wouldn’t expect you to charge me money for a dinner.” 

Chaos defensive coordinator Ryan Curtis described Riorden’s leadership as one of his greatest assets. He reads the temperature of the locker room the way he picks up on a shooter’s tendencies. His colorful remarks in which he encouraged the offense to take charge at halftime of the Chaos’ 15-9 PLL semifinal win over the Atlas made the rounds on social media. Riorden's reactions after goals are more subtle. No matter what, he shoulders the blame. 

“That’s on me,” he tells the defense in the huddle.

“You know when you mess up, he’s got your back,” Neumann said. “That’s the best part about knowing Blaze is behind you.” 

Puffing on a Monte Cristo Epic Series cigar he nabbed from Neumann and carrying a Bud Light in his left hand, Riorden pumped his right fist in the air as he walked over to his family cheering from the field-level stands.  “MVP!” they started cheering in unison, loud enough to hear over the “Rocky” theme song playing from the stadium speakers. 

You didn’t need crazy eyes to see that the words embossed on Riorden’s shirt and hat described him perfectly in that moment. He looked like a champion.