It seemed like for the first time in the whole tournament everyone who was in Niagara Falls, New York, for the Thrill of the Spill, the 2012 WFTDA North Central Regionals, was in the venue. Every bleacher seat and suicide seat was finally full; the crowd was loud from the first welcome that blared out over speakers. More than any other year even, this showdown seemed inevitable. Minnesota. Windy City. The North Central Regional Championship game.
Every year in the organized history of flat track roller derby, the WFTDA playoffs and championship has represented the best of this sport: the best the game has ever been played, the best sporting event that the game has seen, the most memorable performances, the greatest celebrations; it’s been the grandest stage. Regardless of in-fighting, dramatics, disagreements about the game, the culture, or the identity, the one constant has remained that this tournament is the tournament to win. Like or not, the WFTDA Championships is the biggest thing, athletically, that the sport has ever known. It hasn’t stopped out-doing itself every year. And this year, it is getting bigger still.
While like the sport itself, the buzz around it has continued. There’s a certain buzz around this year’s WFTDA playoffs that is new and unique to this year. Since the first ever WFTDA championship in 2006, every year has seen the sport advance considerably. From 2006 to 2009 the game on a national and increasingly international stage had to “find itself” on the flat track. By the 2009 championship tournament (aptly titled “Declaration of Derby”), the game seemed to have settled. The parameters had been set. A team culled from national level USARS inline skating sports based out of Olympia, Washington, was bringing a level of athleticism and professionalism to the game that the sport—in any of its previous incarnations—had never seen. But it would be another western team, the Denver Roller Dolls, who, despite losing to those aforementioned Oly Rollers in the semi-finals, would be the team that would lead the forefront of the flat track game’s greatest evolution, and would lead the sport in its Great Leap Forward.
2009 was so essential for so many reasons, not all to do with what was happening on the track. While the Derby News Network was already taking its spot in the derby world and had dabbled with boutcasting in 2008, it would be the 2009 championships that would truly see DNN and roller derby boutcasting reach the larger audience. Perhaps for the first time, there truly was a larger audience to reach. But as it were, the greater derby community tuned in to that tournament because they could, and what they witnessed there was the flat track game finally throwing off the shackles of the past and truly finding itself. For the first time it seemed like strategies and game-play philosophies were emerging organically from the fact that the game was being played on a flat track. And although they may not have invented it, it was Denver who introduced the derby world to flat track’s greatest (and admittedly most controversial) evolution: the slow game. Perhaps just as importantly—as confused boos rained down on the track from the baffled fans—it gave the sport one of its first major on-track controversies.
Controversy surrounds the 2012 playoffs as well, and Oly is once again at the centre of it. Transfergate may be the overarching narrative of this Big 5 cycle, but in Niagara Falls at the North Centrals it isn’t quite the news that it most certainly will be when Westerns kick off less than a week after this opening tournament. Perhaps more than any other region (from top down), the teams in the North Central Region still adhere to a fast-pack game (though the once controversial aspects of the game that Denver ushered in in 2009, like isolating blockers to control pack definition and trapping on power jams, have become such a ubiquitous part of the sport that it’s funny to think they churned up such vitriol only three short years ago). There isn’t much passive offense in the North Central game, and when teams do employ it, for the most part, it’s being used as a set-up to other plays. The game is fast and it’s hard hitting.
If they weren’t already the darlings of the region, the Ohio Roller Girls won legions of fans this weekend with their spirited play. Small in stature by the standards of the North Central (they looked like a junior league next to teams like Brew City and Windy City), they are big in spirit. After completing the busiest schedule in the WFTDA this past year (21 games), they still came into the tournament underdogs in their opener against Arch Rival. In the most thrilling game of the opening day, Ohio would show the resilience that has made them so successful and would constantly fight back; showing endurance gained from those countless games on the road, they roared back late in the bout as Arch waned. They won by 10 points to set up a showdown against Windy City.
In the semi-final against Windy City, they would leave it all on the track. Windy City was riding a 26-game regional unbeaten streak heading into this one, and they would be pushed all game by the upstarts from Columbus. Battered, bruised, injured, Ohio would limp away from that 50-point loss to the defending champs knowing they’d done all they could. Unfortunately, they had little left for the third place showdown with Naptown who dominated the game from start to finish to ease their way into a second straight WFTDA Championship Tournament. It wasn’t much of a surprise to see Ohio’s Phoenix Bunz take Tournament Blocker MVP, but it was a surprising sweep when her teammate the Smacktivist was named top jammer. Small consolation for the hardest working team in the game.
The final delivered. Easily the best game of the tournament, it was wide-open, fast, full of hard hitting blockers and jukey jammers. A stunning display of the game by two of the sport’s most venerable leagues. Having played to a controversial tie earlier this summer, this one seemed capable of going the same route as neither team could gain an advantage in the first half. In the second, Windy seemed to pull away early only to have Minnesota climb all the way back. But as champions do, Windy City brought its best game of the tournament—and perhaps even the season—when it mattered most. The 165-153 win meant that the same three teams (in the same ranking order) will be returning to the championship this year.
The Thrill of the Spill couldn’t have provided a better start to this year’s WFTDA playoffs.
****For complete-game recaps head over to the Derby News Network where Justice Feelgood Marshall captured the blow-by-blow action.
North Central Region