Local lax stars will take the place of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games
Irondequoit’s Joe Walters and Fairport’s Blaze Riorden plan to be part of two-week championship series this summer. Opportunity knocked and the Premier Lacrosse League answered.
With the vast majority of the sports world shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic, the professional lacrosse league that includes several Section V alumni will play a two-week championship tournament without fans beginning in late July. And while the goal is to provide something for a sports landscape that’s been bare since mid-March, the priority remains safety.
“It’s fully quarantined, which means we’re rolling out a robust medical protocol that’s led by a COVID-19 medical committee,” league co-founder and player Paul Rabil said in a video statement on the league website. “You can only accomplish this in a fully quarantined model, which we’ve done by taking over an entire rotation just for the championship series.”
Blaze Riorden, a 2012 Fairport graduate, is more than ready to get going. He plays for the Philadelphia Wings of the National Lacrosse League and is a goalie for the PLL’s Chaos. Playing lacrosse 10 months out of the year, in addition to clinics around the country, means he’s not used to being grounded the way he has been during the pandemic.
“This is the first time I’ve slept in the same place for 14 straight days since college,” Riordan said from Philadelphia. “I’m excited for this opportunity, though. It’s like a little light at the end of the tunnel ... We can finally circle a date.”
Joe Walters, a 2002 Irondequoit graduate, sees a ton of potential for the league and the game.
“There were some rumblings about the format a few weeks ago and I was like, this would be incredible,” said Walters, who lives in Manhattan Beach, California and plays midfield for Redwood. “From a competitive standpoint, it’s great, and it’s also the safest and best format for everyone involved.”
Riorden and Walters have plenty of local company in the PLL. Ben Reeves (Palmyra-Macedon) is on the expansion Waterdogs roster and the Chrome roster includes Brett Queener (Penn Yan), Michael Manley (Penn Yan), Greg Coholan (Irondequoit) and Donny Moss (Aquinas). Chrome is coached by Fairport graduate Tim Soudan and the Waterdogs have Andy Copelan (Pittsford) as their coach.
The PLL season for its seven teams was supposed to begin on May 29 but was suspended because of the pandemic. So the league announced this week its plans for the championship series, which will have 20 games over 16 days from July 25 to Aug. 9. The games will be televised and streamed on various NBC channels.
All seven teams will play at least four games in the opening round with matchups determined in June by a random draw. An elimination round will begin on Aug. 4 with the teams seeded based on record and point differential. The No. 1 seed receives a bye.
The semifinals are set for Aug. 6 and the championship game is Aug. 9. It’s an intense format, but not foreign to players like Walters who have played in world championship tournaments. And the way Walters sees it, there is no downside to more intensity.
“What really stands out is the competition,” he said. “Every game will feel like a gold medal game. Every game will mean something.”
Part of the format, of course, is medical. Players will arrive at the site a week prior to games for a training camp. Players, officials and everyone involved will tested before they leave for the site, when they arrive and before they leave.
Rabil told NBC’s “Today” show last week that the three-phase testing system will not compromise tests for those who need it and the league was careful to consult with medical professionals and experts to be sure the PLL is not receiving preferential treatment.
“A sports league that is providing testing to its players preventitively shouldn’t be be in a position where we’re potentially pulling COVID testing from those who need it symptomatically,” he said. “For us, because we’re in a position to be starting at the end of July, we’ve been told by experts that will not be the case.”
While Riorden is of course thrilled to play the game he loves, he’s also aware of the opportunity. Lacrosse is a game that’s been growing steadily in terms of participation and exposure, but the championship series has the potential to take it even further.
“They saw and opening and took a chance,” he said of the PLL becoming the first team-based league to announce a season. “Everything they expect from us is done with safety in mind and they backed it all up with facts and data to prove it.”
To that end, the date for the tournament will fill the vacancy left by the postponement of the Summer Olympics.
“They’ve adapted to the times,” said Riorden. “Kids these days in sixth grade have access to phones and tablets where they can watch. The league has bought into a new-school module that allows you to be part of the game while sitting on your couch ... It’s exciting to think that people who might not be lacrosse fans can maybe click by the channel and watch 5 minutes, then maybe become a new fan.”
Walters, who also works for the league as the Athlete Training Coordinator for the PLL Academy, sees this as a trailblazing opportunity.
“To be at the forefront, it’s good for the sport,” he said. “We’re trying to make this into a major market, major sports league ... and this is a great option during troubling times.”
Ready to roll
To make it personal, Riorden and Walters just want to play. But both understand it’s not that simple these days. To that, both are confident the PLL is doing everything possible to ensure the safety of everyone involved so not only can they play lacrosse, but be there for fans even if the fans can’t be there for them.
“I see it first-hand,” said Walters. “In working for the league, I see what goes into it all. I see the 16-hour days and the time and passion that goes on behind the scenes. It’s really awesome to see ... They wanted to make a move so guys have something to look forward to.”
And that’s exactly why Riorden is so excited. After so much down time, the day to get after is finally on its way after so much uncertainty.
“It’s mixed emotions because you want fans there, but obviously safety is first,” he said. “But it comes down to competing. I want to be the best and win championships. I don’t play the game to be in front of thousands of fans. I play it because I love the game.”