12/18/2017 12:59:00 PM / Jeff Baker
After the departure of captain Billy Dee Smith and fellow veteran Ryan Benesch, the Buffalo Bandits entered the 2017-18 NLL season with somewhat of a void.
Bandits head coach Troy Cordingley left it up to the players to determine who would fill the open leadership positions. As was the case in 2015, a team vote would decide it.
And when the results came in, Steve Priolo was overwhelmingly the clear choice for captain.
“It was a unanimous decision, to be quite honest with you,” Cordingley said. “Steve’s a proven veteran and he’s gone through the wars. He’s very well-spoken, just real good in the dressing room.”
Drafted 21st overall by the Bandits in 2009, Priolo’s grooming began when the 6-foot-5 basketball player-turned-laxer was named captain of his hometown St. Catharines Athletics Junior A team following his rookie year in the pros.
With a true grit to his game, one that has made him a fan favorite in a blue-collar city like Buffalo, Priolo’s ascension to the captaincy came as no surprise for those around the organization.
“Steve didn’t have a ‘C’ on his shirt, but he’s been a leader since he got here,” assistant coach John Tavares, a former Bandits captain and a teammate of Priolo’s for six seasons, said. “He’s always been a presence. I think he’ll be up to the challenge and do a great job.”
Having cemented himself as one of the league’s elite defenders, Priolo, 28, has long made his presence felt out on the floor. He has been one of three finalists for NLL Defensive Player of the Year in every season since 2013, still looking for his first win.
“To be honored and voted by league representatives as a finalist for five years in a row, that’s pretty remarkable,” Cordingley said. “He plays tough, physical. And the way the game is meant to be played.”
At the end of the day, awards aren’t something a competitor like Priolo is focused on.
“I know for a fact he doesn’t really care about the individual accolades,” Cordingley said. “We’ve often had discussions about winning a championship. And what it takes. That’s all he really wants. He just wants to lead this team back to the promised land.”
Dhane Smith, Kevin Brownell and Craig England, who will rotate as the two alternate captains each game, will support the cause in their own ways while working alongside Priolo.
“He’s going to have a strong supporting cast,” Tavares said. “We’ve got some guys who aren’t as vocal in the changing room, but they’re great out on the floor. I think those are the ones who make the best leaders.”
Already a perennial league leader in the stats department, with a 2016 NLL MVP trophy to boot, the 25-year-old Smith has made tremendous strides in his young career.
According to Cordingley, the gifted scorer’s best attribute is simply his love for the game.
“This is my fifth year with Dhane and he has grown remarkably,” he said. “He’s so successful because he has so much fun doing what he does. Big smile after every shift, every practice, every meeting. That really wears off on guys. He doesn’t speak very often, but when he does, he’s got the attention of the dressing room.”
A third-round pick out of Robert Morris University by the Bandits in 2012, Brownell worked his way up from the practice roster as a rookie in 2013. The transition player has since carved out a strong two-way role by doing the little things, whether it be forcing a turnover or recovering a loose ball.
“Kevin is a quiet leader,” Cordingley said. “He’s always in phenomenal shape. Highly intelligent. Helps us with our transition, extremely responsible defensively. It’s impressive how positionally sound he is. He’s another guy who leads by example.”
While Smith and Brownell take a more stoic approach, England offers a fiery edge to help spark his teammates.
Bouncing around to start his career, first with Toronto then New England, the fifth-year pro has found a home in Buffalo since joining the team in 2016. An alumnus of the famed Orangeville Northmen junior lacrosse program, England has emerged as one of the “heartbeats” of the Bandits.
“This guy is all heart and soul,” Cordingley said. “Coaching, you just love guys like that. They’ll do whatever it takes for the team to win. He’s loud, he’s fun. Always ready to protect a teammate. A true warrior. He plays for the name on the front [of the jersey] way, way more than the one on the back.”
The Bandits’ new leaders will be called upon to help the team get back to the playoffs in the quest for the NLL’s holy grail, the Champion’s Cup.