When the Toronto Rock's 2010 National Lacrosse League season ended with a loss to the Washington Stealth last May, general manager Terry Sanderson made a promise to himself that he wouldn't let that happen again.
And now as the Rock's 2011 NLL season is set to launch Saturday at the Air Canada Centre against the Edmonton Rush, Sanderson is making another promise — this time to the team's fans.
"The message we want to send to our fans is that we don't plan on being out-worked and that they can expect a fast in-your-face defensive team with the ability to put up some goals," Sanderson said as the team practised at the Iroquois Lacrosse Arena on the Six Nations Reserve near Hagersville, Ont.
One of the players that Sanderson is counting on to bring a championship back to Toronto is sophomore forward Garrett Billings, the Rock's first-round draft pick — sixth overall — from 2009.
"We all know what type of player Garrett Billings is; he makes the kind of plays that make you stand back and wonder sometimes," Sanderson said.
Billings, a 24-year-old native of Langley, B.C., out of the University of Virginia, is coming off a spectacular rookie season and is confident that this team can break through to a NLL title.
"Last year was pretty much an unknown for me," Billings said. "It was a completely new team, new coaches. None of the offence had really played together before, so there were a lot of unknowns.
"Now we already know we have the chemistry from last season. It's just a lot more comfortable this year. We can try different things to see what works."
If there is a caveat in both Sanderson's and Billings' preview of the Rock's chances for a championship this season it is the tough competition the team will face in the NLL Eastern Conference.
The Boston Blazers, the Rochester Knighthawks and Philadelphia Wings have all upgraded their talent.
"The Eastern Conference this year is so strong," Billings said.
"I think Rochester is going to be huge if they can figure out some of the problems they had last year.
"They have Matt Zash and that alone makes them very dangerous.
"Over in Boston they have three guys coming back who were one-two-three in MVP voting last season.
"Our biggest challenge this year will be just to make the playoffs in such a tough conference."
Sanderson said that the experience the team gained in its 2010 playoff run should serve them well, but cautioned that success won't come easy.
"The fact that we fell a little short last season makes me believe that we come into (2011) with a hungrier attitude," he said.
"But any points in this league will be very tough to come by this season."
Sanderson also said that the Rock cannot get caught looking past Edmonton — part of what many consider the weaker Western Conference — in the season opener Saturday at the ACC.
"Edmonton, I can guarantee you, will have our utmost attention on Saturday," Sanderson said. "You have to remember that Edmonton went to the Western Conference final last season.
"They are well-coached and they play a game similar to ours. They like to push the ball from the back and their transition is a very big part of their game.
‘Push the ball'
"But whether you are playing Edmonton or Philadelphia, points in this league will be hard won."
Billings agrees that Edmonton will be a tough foe.
"They play a different style than a lot teams; they really push the ball," he said. "You see their defencemen shooting the ball a lot.
"We like to the push the ball as well so I can see this game being an up-and-down match with lots of running and lots of shooting.
"We are definitely prepared to play that kind of game. I think we can match their running and their shooting."
Missing behind the bench this season will be assistant coach Matt Sawyer who left the team in the off-season to take over as head coach in Boston.
But Rock head coach Troy Cordingley will have Sanderson, who will serve as an assistant coach in tandem with his GM duties, on the bench with him.
Cordingley also has the luxury of three seasoned goaltenders — Bob Watson, Gee Nash and Pat Campbell — to start the season.
Campbell, however will sit out Saturday as a result of a one-game suspension for his part in a pre-season bench-clearing brawl against the rival Buffalo Bandits on Dec. 15.
The Rock's season debut goes at 7 p.m. at the ACC and will be televised live on TSN2.