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If the National Lacrosse League had an award for most improved player, Steve Priolo just might have been the winner last year.

Now the Buffalo Bandits’ defenseman is hoping to continue to show progress toward becoming one of the best players at his position in the league. Priolo will try to take another step toward that goal tonight when the Bandits host the Toronto Rock at First Niagara Center (7:30 p.m., nll.com, Radio 1520 AM).

Not only did practically everyone in the league think that Priolo arrived as a force in the NLL in 2013, but the defenseman himself thought he took some big steps forward.

“I definitely feel like I did,” he said. “I’m getting older and taking a bigger role on the team.”

It’s easy to forget that Priolo will only turn 25 next week. The St. Catharines, Ont., native already is in his fifth year with the team.

Priolo grew up across the border playing lacrosse. Once he grew into his current 6-foot-5 frame in high school, he became a fine basketball player at that level. Still, he was good enough at lacrosse to be a second-round draft choice by the Bandits in 2009.

When he got to his first training camp, he realized he had some growing up to do.

“Everyone is a man here,” Priolo said about the NLL. “You realize quickly, now you’re playing against grown men.”

Priolo slowly worked his way into the Buffalo lineup. He mostly was noticed whenever a fight broke out in a game, because he was often involved. But he also took some bad penalties along the way. Priolo soon realized he needed to be more than just an enforcer.

“The way the game is changing, I had to adapt my game,” he said. “The league was a lot more aggressive and had more fighting when I came in. We still have that, but there’s more pushing the ball up the floor.”

It didn’t take long for Priolo to catch the eye of onlookers last year. One of the most important viewers was Bandits General Manager Steve Dietrich, who had his first long look at Priolo last season.

“To be honest with you, when I took over Steve was one of the guys who was an afterthought,” Dietrich said. “I didn’t give him much respect. I didn’t know how good he was. But he got in the lineup, and opened my eyes.

“He can throw his weight around. He can use his fists. He’s a good transition player. He plays good positionally. He’s great in the locker room, a future captain. He’s just grown in leaps and bounds.”

One statistic from last season reflects his growth, and it’s not his penalty minutes (46, fifth in the league). Priolo grabbed 76 loose balls, almost doubling his career best and placing second on the team.

Priolo is part of a Buffalo defense that certainly isn’t lacking for size and toughness. Players like Billy Dee Smith and Derek Suddons don’t take many backward steps, and neither does new Bandit Rory Smith. Priolo and Smith had a spirited fight last season when Smith was with Colorado, but Priolo was happy to see Smith come to town.

“We always talk after a game. He’s a great guy, good personality,” Priolo said. “It’s nice to have him on the team. It takes a lot of pressure off. You don’t have to fight every game. Last year, sometimes I felt like I had to do it, but this year we’re really team tough and I love it.”

There’s no reason for any of the Bandits to have felt complacent coming into this season, especially since the team missed the playoffs in 2013. Priolo has tried to make sure that his level of play continues to curve upward this season.

“I played on two teams in the summer in order to keep my fitness up,” he said. “This season I’m expecting even more out of myself.”

...

Tonight marks the first time that Bandits coach Troy Cordingley has faced the team he coached last season, the Rock. Buffalo is coming off a disappointing loss to Philadelphia in its season opener, while Toronto is 1-0 after beating Calgary. … Buffalo has lost its last seven home games, a franchise record. ... The Bandits gave up 25 shots in the second quarter in the opener against the Wings. Records only go back to 2010, but no Buffalo team has ever given up more shots in a quarter over those four-plus seasons. ... The Bandits will play their first road game on Sunday afternoon in Philadelphia.

email: bbailey@buffnews.com