April 10, 2014

Billings Has Record-Setting Year Ended With ACL Tear

By Neil Stevens | LaxMagazine.com | Twitter | Stevens Archive

Garrett Billings was on a record-setting pace before tearing his ACL in last weekend's game. (Larry Palumbo)

OAKVILLE, Ontario — Garrett Billings was having an MVP-worthy season and now all he can do is watch. He stood around in street clothes while his Toronto teammates pulled on pads at the Rock practice facility on Thursday night.

Billings was named player of the month for February by the NLL and when league execs looked around for a March winner they had to give it to the Rock star again. That's how well he's been playing.

Then, in mere seconds, his season went down the drain.

Billings was having a great week. He'd flown in a few days before last Saturday's clash with the Vancouver Stealth to do interviews to promote the game in Langley, British Columbia, and to visit with his mom, Sandy Billings, before his first regular-season pro game in his home city. A Billings cheering section including a grandfather, aunts, uncles, cousins and pals from high school was whooping it up in the Langley Events Centre as he assisted on seven goals to help Toronto go up 9-2 in the second quarter, giving him a league-best 101 points and making him the first player in indoor pro history to surpass 100 points three times.

Billings had the ball in his stick when he was checked by Tyler Garrison. He stumbled as his right leg buckled under him and he went down in obvious pain.

''As I planted my foot, he hit me, and it was a clean hit, but his weight and my weight all came down on my leg,'' Billings said during an interview. ''My foot was planted in the turf and I thought, 'There goes the ACL.'''

He could not put any weight on the leg as he was helped off the floor. He did not return to the game. Afterwards, word spread that he tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee. An examination by the Rock medical staff Wednesday confirmed as much and a team news release stated that he would miss the remainder of the 2014 season. He'd missed only one previous game in his NLL career and that was due to a concussion in the second of his five seasons.

The knee injury occurred in Game 14 of Toronto's 18-game schedule. The Rock are one game ahead of Philadelphia in the NLL East and the Wings visit Air Canada Centre on Saturday night. If the Rock win, they will win the season series 2-1 and clinch a playoff berth. If the Wings win, the teams will be tied and the Wings will win the season series and own the standings tiebreaker should they finish the schedule with identical records.

''I'm a little jealous I won't get to play this weekend with the guys,'' says Billings.

''People are going to miss out on watching a very good lacrosse player,'' GM Terry Sanderson said in contemplating the absence of Billings in his team's most crucial game of the season. ''I feel bad for Garrett. He goes to the net like that 20 times a game and, for whatever reason, that happened this time. It's too bad it happened.''

Billings only needed crutches until Wednesday. Now he's walking slowly on his own.

''It's a bit stiff but less pain than you'd think for an injury that takes so long to come back from,'' he says.

Surgery is likely in May.

''I've just got to decide exactly what graft I want to go with whether hamstring or patella,'' he says. ''They say it's at least a six-month recovery but lacrosse guys know it takes a lot longer than that. I'd say a year on the short side. I think I'd be rushing it if I tried to come back for the beginning of next season. I probably won't be back up to full speed until 2016.''

He's 12 points ahead of Rochester's Cody Jamieson in the scoring race but the injury will probably cost him the title.

''It's pretty disappointing,'' he says. ''It's unfortunate. But I'm a fairly positive person so I'll get through this. All I can really do is look forward.

''Every athlete knows there is a good chance you're going to get hurt. I'm just looking at the positives. It's my ACL and not my meniscus and PCL or LCL so that shortens the healing time and, you know, guys can actually come back from ACL injuries. It's not like it was 10 or 15 years ago. I'm realistic in that I know that some guys don't come back full speed so it's going to be a journey and I've just got to stay positive and be realistic with the outcomes.''

Kasey Beirnes and Rob Hellyer are the other right-hand shooters in the Rock offense so they'll have to pick up slack. That is one tall order.

''Our offense won't change,'' says Sanderson. ''It'll carry on without Garrett Billings. Our offense isn't structured around one guy. Will there be a difference? Yes. Garrett had a lot of touches on our right side. Kasey and Robbie will get those touches now and I'm sure their production will go up.''

''Everyone is going to have to play a little bit better,'' adds offensive coach Blaine Manning. ''Kasey and Robbie will be a little more integral to the five-man unit and whoever gets the sixth spot on offense is also going to get an opportunity and hopefully can make the best of it.''

Hellyer had a huge second half in Vancouver after Billings went out.

''He's still young but he's been with the Rock for four years and he's coming into his own,'' said Manning. ''He's a good player and so is Kasey. They're going to be fine. Garrett is a big loss but if anyone can rebound it'll be these guys.''

Beirnes and Hellyer are embracing the challenge.

''Some of us are going to have to step up, obviously, to pick up from the big loss of Garrett,'' said Beirnes. ''This game is a crucial turning point in our season. I think we're coming together as a team. It is a little late in the season to be doing that but we can still make the playoffs and we all know anything can happen once the playoffs start in this league. This game will make or break our season and that's the mentality in the dressing room.''

''To me, he's the best box player in the world right now,'' Hellyer said of Billings. ''The vision he has and the way he can shoot that ball is pretty unbelievable. It's going to hurt not having him out there. When the best player in the league goes down with an injury like that and all of a sudden you've got to fill those shoes, it's a big role to play. We've got a huge game to play. We win, we're in. If we can pull that one off, it would be massive. If not, we've got some fightin' to do.''

By the time practise was over it was obvious that team morale remains high despite the knowledge their league scoring leader won't be in the lineup Saturday.

''We've got professionals in there and, although they know it's a big loss, they're just going to be a little bit better,'' Manning said as he stood outside the dressing room.

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