Pondering the Playoffs
One Nerd’s reflections on the WFTDA Eastern Region Playoffs
The more things change the more they stay the same.
That cliché has never felt truer than after watching this weekend’s WFTDA Eastern Region playoff tournament. When it was all said and done, the same three teams (Gotham, Philly and Charm City) that represented the east at last year’s WFTDA championship were through again, but the group of teams they left behind could not have been more different, and they game they were playing continues to evolve in exciting ways: stronger, faster, smarter seems to be the theme of the 2011 WFTDA playoffs.
The first day was one of upsets and, eventually, upset. London Brawling became only the second international team to play in the WFTDA playoffs and the first European team to do so and they made a grand entrance. Despite their high power ranking from DNN, much had been made of their inclusion in the top 10 given their relative lack of sanctioned experience, but they quickly proved those skeptics wrong with a one-sided upset (160-67) over 7th seed Carolina. It would be the only upset on the opening day (the top four would advance), but it would not turn out to be the story of the first round.
After an impressive 198-117 victory over 9th seed Maine, 8th seed Dutchland made the controversial decision to forfeit their quarterfinal bout against Gotham to avoid the inevitable defeat and “remain fresh” for the consolation round. Condemnation of the decision was swift and harsh as social media sites exploded with criticism. The decision, made in the heat of the moment one would hope, is probably one that the team has come to regret, and while the criticism may have been extreme and perhaps even a little too harsh, it was a decision that rankled many because it ran counter to roller derby’s inherent “give it your all” attitude. With a wide disparity even at the highest levels of the sport, the key to a team’s development is to play against those better, and sometimes even much better. Just ask Steel City. They were the team that would eventually fall in front of Gotham in the semifinal on Saturday. They were slaughtered by one of the largest playoff margins in history, falling 404-30. The second half was particularly harrowing for the Pittsburgh skaters as Gotham thoroughly dominated from pack to jammer. But in deference to the pounding, Steel Hurtin never stopped fighting and continuously adapted to what they were facing. Finally, on the closing jam of the bout, the Shocker managed to pick up the first lead jammer status of the half for Pittsburgh. Facing unspeakable odds she flew into the pack and took the full two minutes to claw and drag her way through to pick up 3 points (of only 7 in the half). When Steel City skated off the track they didn’t look like a team that had been pummelled for 60 minutes: they were exhausted, battered, but there was a particular glint in their eyes as they skated off the track, that undeniable glimmer of pride that comes from facing the impossible and not backing down.
As it’s been since the 2006 Dust Devil, at this early stage in the flat track evolution these championship tournaments are as much a process of sharing and dissemination than anything else. And with increased exposure and the ability to watch the bouts in high definition from anywhere on the planet, the importance of the WFTDA’s Big 5 in the continued development of the sport cannot be denied. The Eastern Region introduced what seems to be the next great strategic leap in the sport: the battle that occurs between the jammer and pivot lines. Particularly in the early going of the championship bout (but seen clearly all over the tournament), it became evident that how teams react in those first seconds after the opening whistle is becoming increasingly important in determining the outcome of the jam. More and more the battle was being taken directly to the jammer line and slow, grinding starts were the norm. There were times during the Philly/Gotham final when the two packs were like one undulating blob slowing inching its way to turn number one; then suddenly a jammer would pop out seemingly from nowhere to take lead. We also saw the end of “dead” starts (such as in this example of a “jam that wasn’t”), the bane of many a fan’s experience, as teams began to find creative ways to create a no pack after the initial whistle had already blown so as not to incur a destruction of the pack penalty (taking advantage of rule 22.214.171.124.2).
But interest in the Eastern Region playoffs actually extends beyond just the WFTDA tournament cycle. Owing to the inclusion of London and Montreal in this tournament, more than any other regional playoff it offered a brief glimpse of what the inaugural World Cup of Roller Derby might look like. 10 members of Team USA played in the tournament (including five from Gotham alone), while the cores of both Canada and England populated Montreal (six Team Canada skaters) and London (11 of England’s 20). Thus, the consolation final on Sunday between the Skids and the Brawling offered a little bit of a preview of the two teams who many believe could be in the running for second place at the World Cup. England actually has a huge advantage in that so many of these players play together regularly and have proven that they are playing the sport as well as anyone on the planet. Montreal once again showed that they have a certain tenacity and focus that allows them to always play a full 60 minutes of straight-up derby every bout and remain calm in the most stressful and dire of situations. And if that extraordinary 5th place bout (137-135 for London when they held on after being outscored 8-4 on the final jam) is any indication, there is a lot to look forward to when the world comes to Toronto in December.
But the story to carry forward is that Gotham is the real deal. Last WFTDA champions in 2008, they’ve been relegated to the second tier of flat track in the last two years as the top western teams have dominated at the national level. But after a thoroughly dominant performance here that saw them overwhelm a very, very good Philly team in the final (252-97), there should be no doubt that Gotham is ready to contend.
**The highly anticipated WFTDA Western Regionals are next weekend.**
**For bout-by-bout recaps visit DNN.com**