Rock solid lineup

RYAN WOLSTAT, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 8:34 AM ET

With the National Lacrosse League season fast approaching, the Toronto Rock is not lacking in confidence.

The Rock won five championships in seven years from 1999-2005, but has struggled since, coming off the two worst seasons in franchise history.

At 7-9, the team missed the playoffs for the first time in 2008 and that spurred an eventful off-season that saw a roster overhaul and the retirement of Jim Veltman, the club's captain since its 1998 inception as the Ontario Raiders. Veltman has moved to the bench as an assistant to head coach Glenn Clark, while veteran Chris Driscoll takes over as captain.

The Rock appears capable of making a big move in the standings this season with the quality additions of Luke Wiles, Stephen Hoar, Jason Crosbie and former 44-goal scorer Craig Conn, and the return of veteran goaltender Bob Watson, the NLL goalie of the year in 2008. The team also will get a full season out of Lewis Ratcliff, who scored 13 goals and 28 points in just five games last year.

So confident is Rock president Brad Watters that the team will be "a force in the East," that he has made some season ticket holders an intriguing offer: Buy season tickets in the blue section and if the club misses the playoffs, the team will pay for the same seats in 2010.

"We've rebuilt and we're now ready to go," Watters said at practice in Scarborough yesterday. "A lot of fans have come to me saying: 'You're not as good as you used to be.' Now we are."

Clark, a member of all the Rock's championship teams, agrees.

"We were up for so long ... that's sports," he said. "You get to the top of the mountain, you stay there for a bit, and at some point you have to climb back up and we think we've done that."

Director of lacrosse operations Mike Kloepfer said the Rock desperately needed to improve its offence and he believes it has done so.

In Ratcliff and Conn, the team possesses two of only a handful of players in the league that have scored in the mid-40's in the past. Wiles and Crosbie also are capable offensively and Hoar is a transition threat and an elite face-off man who will get the Rock the ball more often.

"We've brought in character guys," Kloepfer said. "We've just gotten better everywhere, and hopefully, that will help fill the void left by Jim."

For his part, Veltman is enjoying his new role and doesn't appear to be in any rush to make a comeback.

"I don't miss training camp," he said with a laugh.

Assistant captain Blaine Manning said he will be one of many players attempting to fill the void left by Veltman.

"It's tough to replace Jimmy," he said. "The East is always very tough, but with the guys we've added, I don't see why we can't compete for a championship this year."

The season begins Jan. 3 against the New York Titans.


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