2016 Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame Inductee - Al RiozziUpdated Tuesday April 12, 2016 by Saugerties Athletic Association.
Early in life, Al Riozzi was drawn to other sports, playing center in basketball in the SAA Biddy League basketball as an 11 and 12 year old starting in 1976, again with his father Bunny as a coach, and then later in the SAA Junior basketball league under coach Joe Martin. However it was on the youth gridiron that Al would begin the groundwork of playing in the Kingston Pop Warner football league in 1976 and 1977 that would blossom into an outstanding scholastic athletic future, and find his passion for football. The Pop Warner league consisted of 11 and 12 year old players, with a team from Saugerties, Glasco, and several Kingston teams. As a running back on offense and defensive nose guard for the Glasco Scorpions, he instantly fell in love with the game, and it showed with him winning the William Kitsos memorial award both years in the league. “It was a fun league, with a lot of players I would come to know well from Saugerties and Kingston. Derek Whittaker was the top Saugerties running back, and Vinny Kelder and Mike Dittus were outstanding players form the Kingston teams. I loved learning and playing the game, especially because unless we got injured, we never came off of the field. It was non-stop action from the first play to the final whistle.”
Al moved up to play to the Babe Ruth league at age 13, from 1978 through 1980 playing for the Bowler’s Club. Again coached by his father, with Al playing mostly centerfield “we were champions for a couple seasons and I believe we went undefeated in my final year.” At the same time, his father Bunny realized the potential for Saugerties to grow its Babe Ruth program. “After he went to one of the Babe Ruth regional tournaments, he thought we in Saugerties should try to improve our fields to be able to match what he saw elsewhere…at the time, where Lorenz Field is was basically an open field, and as he served as the league president for 12 years, they worked on building it up with dugouts and a concession stand…he would get me to come up on weekends and help him, carrying block or doing whatever we needed to do that day.”
Moving onto Saugerties Junior High, Al was a key part of the SHS Modified football teams in 1977 and 1978, as a running back and linebacker. Those same years he also played on the modified baseball team, and later progressed through the JV squads in 1979 and 1980. For 1981 and 1982, Al anchored the SHS Varsity football team on both sides of the ball, selected as a Kingston Daily Freeman All Star and All-MHAL linebacker in both his junior year as the Sawyers posted a very respectable 7-3 record and senior year with a 6-3-1. His senior year was one for the ages, in the fall of 1982. As a running back, Al carried the ball 117 times for 736 yards (6.3 yards per carry) and scored 6 touchdowns, while also catching 13 passes for 234 yards. In looking back at his high school football years, two games standout to Al. The first was in his Junior year of 1981, playing in Ellenville. The Sawyers were trailing by a lot, as Ellenville would wallop the Sawyers 61-0, and Al got injured early in the 2nd quarter and had to be rushed to the hospital in a police car with his father. “After 15 minutes in hospital, I felt good enough to walk out and get back to game, but there was no transportation for me, so I jogged back to the field and reentered the game late in the 3rd quarter.” The following year in his senior season in the fall of 1982, the Sawyers avenged their lopsided affair the previous season, playing in Saugerties locked up in a 0-0 game with Ellenville, then the 7th ranked team in the state with All-American running back Walter Moseley. “The previous year’s loss really hung with us, and we had a lot of bulletin board quotes as motivation against them the next year.” Al was in the process of leading the Sawyer defense to hold Moseley scoreless in a game for the first time in his 4 years in the Ellenville backfield, as Al registered 15 tackles in the game. However the key moment Al remembers was on an offensive series late in 4th quarter, when the Sawyers had the ball on 4th down with 1 yard to go, on their own 14 yard line. “Coach Neville calls time out to discuss the play, we know that if we punt the ball, we give Moseley a chance to run back for touchdown (which he was famous for) or do we go for it, risking not getting the yard and turning the ball over to Ellenville. I pleaded with Coach Neville to give me the ball, as earlier I noticed how their linebackers were playing against the same play. On a simple dive play, I was confident I could get the first down, knowing what their defense had been doing. He goes along with the play….I bust through a nice hole the offensive line provided, and all I saw was the goal line at the other end of the field…I thought I could get there but at the last second a safety managed to get a hand on my jersey and slow me up enough for others to tackle me after getting 20-plus yards for first down. Coach Neville was great at allowing us to make certain decisions on the field, especially on defense…it really gave us a lot of confidence we could be successful.” His two year total in the Sawyer backfield amassed 1260 yards on 211 carries, and another 385 yards on 26 receptions from quarterbacks Randy Dodig and Paul Madsen. In his senior year Al had led the team on both offense and defense being not only the teams leading rusher but also leading the team with tackles with 28 individual tackles and assisting on 33 others, four better than teammate Derek Whittaker.
For the spring seasons, Al also played on the Sawyer baseball team, beginning in 1978 and 1979 with the modified team, before moving up to the JV squad in 1980 and 1981. As a speedy and heavy hitting outfielder, Al was a part of a very dominating Sawyer Varsity squad in his Junior and Senior years. As a Junior, with fellow Saugerties Sports Hall of Famers Randy Nilsen, John Harris, Jeff and Mike Dodig, and Mike Hasenbalg, the 1982 Sawyers went a staggering 20-1, sweeping to their 2nd MHAL title with a perfect 18-0 league record, and their only loss coming in their final sectional game. In his Senior year of 1983, again with Hall of Fame teammates Mike Hasenbalg, Jeff and Mike Dodig, the Sawyers captured their third consecutive MHAL championship with an overall 16-2 record,.
Upon graduating from Saugerties High in 1983, Al headed off to Ulster County Community College for a year, and then up to SUNY Albany, to play football for the Great Danes. “I had looked at a few schools, like Ithaca College and Albany, and had considered the US Naval Academy. Coach Neville helped me put together a highlight tape, and I took a year to decide what I wanted to do. For my sophomore year, I sent the tape to Albany and they were interested in having me on the team.” Initially Al started on Albany’s JV team, then earned a starting role on the varsity squad as a fullback. I ended up starting our game in West Point and midway through the game I sprained my ankle pretty bad, which held me out for the rest of the season.” After that, Al decided to concentrate mainly on his classes and studies.
On the home front, after an internship and working summers with IBM, Al’s father Bunny offered him a partnership that got him started in the masonry business, putting that drive from the athletic field success into a work ethic leading to a thriving business. Again with his father as a role model with his past community involvement, Al also evolved into a lynch pin in many aspects of the Saugerties sports community. In the summers, Al continued to play locally in SAA softball leagues from 1985 until 2003, sponsoring the Riozzi Masonry team that mirrored his success as businessman with a string of consecutive league championships as well. “We played in the A league, with and against many other softball standouts, winning the league several years in a row. It was a fun, competitive league.”
Al married his wife Lorraine on November 4, 1989 at St. John’s Church, and shortly thereafter they had their two sons, Anthony and Michael. While Al continued to play softball, and later volleyball in the SAA leagues, as their boys became involved in sports Al’s focus centered on their teams. As Al’s father Bunny had done, Al also coached the boys first (who were a year apart & often played on the same teams) on the Glasco East Kingston Little Braves and All Stars from 1997 through 2003, serving as the league’s vice president. In doing so, he brought a drive and an infectious enthusiasm to the league’s operation, sponsoring teams in both Little League and SAA, and spearheaded a number of ambitious projects. Using his contacts and experience as a local masonry contractor, as well as his expertise and equipment, he was responsible for many field and ground improvements, by being personally involved and getting others involved as well. This included expanding the Glasco Fred Davi field concession stand, building dugouts and a scorekeepers and equipment storage building on the second Glasco field, and building a paved “wall ball” court behind the fields. In addition, Al was also responsible for the rebuilding of the Riccardi Elementary school playground school basketball court at the same time.
As Anthony & Michael moved up to the Babe Ruth League at the Cantine Field complex, Al followed along as a Babe Ruth manager & coach from 2003 to 2005. As his father Bunny had previously donated his masonry and building skills to building Lorenz Field, Al was responsible for rebuilding the Lorenz Field backstop with a new brick and fenced structure. At the same time, Al was also busy rebuilding the dugouts on the main baseball field at Cantine Field in 2008. And he didn’t stop there; as the boys moved up to play football, lacrosse, and wrestle at Saugerties High, Al and Lorraine were there with them becoming involved with the Sawyer Sports Booster Club. He served as the club’s vice president in 2006 -2007, and its president in 2007/2008, becoming very involved fundraising for the Sawyer sports programs. “My wife and I really enjoyed working with other parents to help support our student athletes. It was an extreme sense of pride too.” This also included fundraising and providing labor and materials to build an addition to the Kiwanis Ice Arena for a training room used by the school wrestling program, and many other local organizations. In 2011 and 2012, Al did the same in building the dugouts on the Keeley and West softball fields.
Still, as generous and dedicated in completing all of these projects, for Al the competitive juice still flows, as he continues to play in the SAA volleyball leagues, with several of his team’s crowned as league champions, including men’s and co-ed teams, with and against his boys. “We've played my sons team (both are on same team) the past two year in finals, and we've come out victorious, in the midst of a three-peat….The boys are still scratching their heads in awe of how they can't beat us older men.”
Al obviously has many exciting and memorable experiences from his days as a standout football player, and then again coaching with his own sons. “Besides actually playing football, one of my pleasures in sports was watching my boys play together on the varsity team. A few years back I had the pleasure of actually playing with them on a flag football team out in the Milton Sports Dome for a complete season. It was a memorable experience to actually be on the playing field with them. I was fortunate enough to have many thrills in sports, on a personal level and on a team level….but none could be as thrilling as seeing both of my boys on the varsity football team at the same time. I was finally able to understand the joy my Dad had experienced while watching me play football.”
In thinking about inspirations, Al thought of several: “There are many people who inspire you as you grow up playing various sports….people who believe in you, and push you to strive to be the best you can be…no matter what the situation is. In my high school years, two individuals come to mind: Coach Tony Vizzie and Coach Hank Smith. Two of the best coaches I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing for. They motivated and inspired all of us to be the best that we can be. But throughout my life and still to this day, the person who inspired me most in sports and in life is my father, Bunny Riozzi. From Little League till the day he passed, he instilled a ‘do or die’ attitude….a ‘fight to the end’ mentality, give 110% until that final whistle blew. That type of competitiveness doesn’t win many sportsmanship awards. I thank him because it made me the man I am today.”
The Saugerties sports community owes a lot to those like Al Riozzi, who selflessly shared his expertise, time, and money in many improvements all around the town, while serving as a role model to all those around him. An outstanding football player in his own right, we congratulate Al Riozzi as a most deserving honoree of the 2016 Saugerties Sports Hall of Fame class!