The Chaos Success Comes From Thinking Inside the Box

PHOTO BY KEVIN P. TUCKER


Dhane Smith found Josh Byrne before the Atlas defense could react. Byrne dunked the pass for his fourth goal of the game. On the Chaos’ next goal, the roles reversed, and Byrne assisted Smith to put the Chaos up 13-8.

The duo, who combined for 11 points in the semifinal win, and their connection was apparent almost as frequently as they appeared on the stat sheet at Subaru Park. Byrne and Smith, the 2016 NLL MVP, have been roommates since the day Byrne was selected first overall by the Buffalo Bandits in the 2017 NLL Draft. The two even chide each other for ordering the same thing when they go out to restaurants.

“It’s crazy, honestly,” said Chaos attackman and fellow Buffalo Bandit Chase Fraser. “It’s like they’re brothers or even twins at times. No matter what they’re doing, they’re always doing something together … on the floor or the field, they’re always on the same page.”

“Obviously, when you spend every day with someone, you’re naturally gonna start to create this type of chemistry,” said Byrne, who led the Chaos in the regular season with 29 points on 17 goals and 12 assists.

The pair that seems at home setting each up for goals is no longer alone at home. For parts of the past year, Chaos and Buffalo Bandits teammates — Fraser, Chris Cloutier and Ian Mackay —  have lived in the house Smith and Byrne purchased together in 2020.

“It’s basically like going to college, but with no school,” Byrne said of the living arrangements just outside of Buffalo. The abode features a backyard pool that Smith has been known to backflip into. Offensive game planning can occur during rounds of golf or at Buffalo Bills’ games instead of over Zoom.

“When you’re playing with your best friends, I think there’s another layer of communication that can only be helpful,” Chaos head coach Andy Towers said.

Byrne and Smith, who had six points in the semifinal and ranks second on the team in points, represent the closest scoring connection to last year’s team that made the Championship Series title game. In a sign of the turnover, on Sunday the Chaos will only dress eight players that played in the 2020 title game.

“We are a totally different group,” Towers said. “This Chaos team is not connected to last year’s Chaos team that was its own unique body of work.”

The additions have taken place mostly on the offensive end. They include seven new players who accounted for 84 points in the regular season. Towers traded a third-round pick in the 2022 College Draft for Cloutier (19 points). He got Wes Berg (seven points) plus a first-round pick in the 2022 draft via another trade that sent Dillon Ward to the Waterdogs. Mac O’Keefe (13 points), Tanner Cook (two points) and Ryan Smith (nine points) were the team’s first-, second- and fourth-round selections in this year’s college draft. Kyle Jackson, the final pick in the entry draft, led the Chaos with four goals in a quarterfinal win over the Archers. Fraser, who Towers signed from the player pool in February, has been one of the breakout players of the year and tallied 19 points in the regular season despite missing the first three weeks.

Besides a box lacrosse background that all the players share, Towers said that all the additions exude a “We is greater than me” mentality. It’s helped fuel their second half success and stands out in Towers’ nearly 30-year coaching career.

“I have never been around a team that has the full commitment of every single player in the locker room like this one does,” he said. “I love the fact that everybody on our team recognizes that dynamic, but nobody is relying on that being enough for us to be the two-time defending champs and the class of the league right now in the Whipsnakes.”







IN BLAZE WE TRUST

During the Chaos’ huddle with less than five seconds remaining in the regular-season finale against the Redwoods, Towers threw out a couple suggestions for a game-tying play. Starting goalie and captain Blaze Riorden had other ideas. He spoke up and orchestrated a Hail Mary. Jarrod Neumann was the quarterback from the defensive end. Riorden was the intended receiver.

The plan came within inches of working.

“Blaze has been in more lacrosse situations than just about anybody else that exists,” Chaos defenseman Jack Rowlett said before citing the example above. “His ability to know what the correct play is, explain why, then execute it, is a skill set that no one else in the league has.”

You could say that for most of Riorden’s game. It’s evident from his lighting quick outlet passes or his knack for altering shooters’ angles. But Riorden’s consistency and impact on the Chaos extends beyond the cage or his ability to ignite the team’s transition attack. The two-time goalie of the year who again leads the league in saves and who Towers has frequently called the best lacrosse player in the world, is the frontrunner to receive the league’s highest honor, MVP. He’s also a finalist for the Brendan Looney Leadership Award.

“People are really just starting to understand the type of magnitude that this guy really brings to a team,” Byrne said.

“He doesn’t have off days,” said Chaos defensive coordinator Ryan Curtis of the two-time PLL goalie of the year. “What’s great about Blaze is his leadership. It’s a skill. As I get older, it feels like younger players have a harder time having tough conversations with each other or knowing what the temperature is of the locker room. Blaze knows those right moments to push guys and he knows those moments to get guys to calm down. When he talks, everyone listens.”

That ability was most evident at halftime of the semifinals when the Chaos trailed 8-5 and were outscored 6-1 in the second quarter. During the offense’s discussion about possible adjustments, Riorden interjected with a direct — and colorful — call to action.

They answered the call and put together a 9-0 run in the second half to pull away. Riorden finished with 17 saves and almost a 70-percent save percentage. According to PLL Stats, he was also the first goalie in pro lacrosse to record two assists in a game since Adam Ghitelman in 2013.

“His approach does not waver, whether we’re ultra-successful or struggling as a team,” Towers said. “He defines his success by our team’s success. You’re not going to find a guy that is less impressed with himself. When the best player in the world and a team leader takes on that characteristic, which is a decision, it spreads in a very positive way throughout the locker room.

“He is still a better teammate and leader than he is a lacrosse player, which is crazy to think.”

NUMBERS NEVER LIE

Despite the fact that they’ll play in the second title game in as many years, the Chaos have played the part of the bracket buster in 2021. “Thank you, 13 percent,” Fraser said to the cameras after the quarterfinal win over the Archers in reference to the amount of fan poll voters that picked them to prevail against the third seed.

That number was called out in Towers’ postgame address to his team. More recently, the focus has shifted to the 3.2 percent of brackets that have the Chaos taking their first title. Regardless of the easy cliché, those numbers have added fuel for the sixth-seeded Chaos, which seems to relish their underdog status.

“Certainly, we’ve taken advantage of that narrative that people are picking everybody but us,” Towers said. “But our opinion is, we don’t give a s***. Our guys realize that the only opinions that matter as it relates to our team’s chances of success are the opinions of the guys that go to practice, are in the locker room and dress on gamedays. Those are the only opinions we care about.”

For the team whose coach tells them to “stay dark” when he wants them to keep their intensity, anger serves as a renewable resource. The perspective also carries with it an almost philosophical benefit. If you’re not expected to win, then what do you have to lose?

“The pressure’s on them,” Towers shouted to his team at halftime of the semifinal against the Atlas.

While Chaos faces their closest matchup from a seed perspective in the No. 5 Whipsnakes, the narrative and the opportunity to break some more brackets will continue against the two-time defending champs.

“Look at our coach,” Rowlett said in the semifinal postgame press conference of the team’s style. “He feeds us that level of energy every time we go out. Whether we got all of the votes or whether we got none of the votes, we’re going to have the attitude and mentality and try to play faster and harder in the blue-collar aspects of the game than anybody. If people vote for us, great. Regardless of who wins this next game, it’s either the No. 1 seed or the two-time defending champs. We’re not going to get voted for again, and I think that’s fantastic.”

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