For fans of flat track roller derby there is no more exciting weekend than the annual WFTDA Championships. It represents the pinnacle of the young sport, and each year provides a canvas upon which the newest strategies, the latest skill developments, and the increased athleticism that the sport requires are painted. Due to the young age of the sport and the accelerated pace at which it is growing, it is possible to say that each year, the WFTDA Championships has provided the best flat track roller derby ever played. And this year will undoubtedly prove to be the best yet.
Since the Texas Rollergirls Texecutioners won the inaugural championship in 2006 and catapulted the young sport into the North American sports and pop culture consciousness, there have been four other champions crowned: Kansas City Roller Warriors (2007), Gotham Girls Roller Derby (2008), Oly Rollers (2009), and Rocky Mountain Rollergirls (2010). They will all be present at the 2011 WFTDA championships. While WFTDA has never crowned a two-time champion, this seems like the best chance for that to happen.
But considering the young age of the sport, this tournament has been more about developing the game than anything. In 2006 when virtually every flat track league on the planet (there were only 20 leagues in 2005, the year that the United Leagues Coalition—soon to be the WFDTA—was formed) converged on Tucson, it was an opportunity for all the leagues from the disparate corners of the United States to get together and share in the development and help nudge along the evolution of the sport. From those early rules-refining days in 2006/2007 to Duke City and eventually Denver’s isolation and trapping revolution in 2008/2009, every major change and growth in the sport has been disseminated through the championship tournament.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP CURSE??
While the Texacutioners became the first team to make two championship finals (2006 and 2009), last year the Oly Rollers became the first team to qualify for two consecutive finals. Despite the fact that the Oly juggernaut could very easily make it a third straight trip to the final in 2011, traditionally defending champs have not fared well in this tournament. After Texas dominated in 2006 and defeated Tucson 129-96 in the final, it seemed as if the god mothers of the sport would never be beaten, but they did finally lose the following year and ended up getting knocked out in the 2007 semifinals to Rat City. Rat couldn’t parlay that historic victory into a championship though and fell in the first WFTDA champs classic 89-85 to Kansas City. Although Kansas would win their first three in a row in 2008, their streak would come to an emphatic end when Windy City rolled over them 155-39 on the eve of the 2008 championship (where Kansas City would stumble further, finishing out of the top four).
By that 2008 tournament, Gotham had replaced Texas as the dominant force in the sport and after crushing Duke City and Philly in the early rounds would put an end to Windy City’s amazing season with a 134-66 trouncing in the final. Gotham would then cruise through the 2009 season undefeated only to be upset by Philly in the Eastern final by 1 point (ending a remarkable 18 game winning streak). Continuing the trend of defending champs falling hard, they would be eliminated by Oly in the 2009 quarterfinals to finish out of the top four.
By the end of the 2009 tournament, where Oly defeated the historic Texacutioners 178-100, it was clear that the Oly Rollers Cosa Nostra Donnas were the new leaders in flat track. From their entry into the WFTDA in January 2009 to their eventual loss to Rocky Mountain in the western final in October 2010, they put together the greatest run in the sport’s early history, winning 22 straight bouts. But even the mighty Oly suffered the curse of the championship and although they became the first team to return to defend their title, they fell in a one-point heartbreaker (147-146) to Rocky Mountain in last year’s championship.
The defending champion Rocky Mountain Rollergirls have continued the dubious trend. Despite starting 2011 strong with big wins over Philly and Rose City, they have faded this season. A tight win against Bay Area in May was followed by the team’s first back-to-back losses since 2009 (to Charm and Oly). In this year’s Western Regionals they were only able to scrape by Rat City in the semis (117-107) before losing to Oly in the West final (143-106). While they remain favourites heading into the tournament, they do not look like the terrifying machine that rolled into the Championships in Chicago last year.
Only two of the teams enter this tournament with undefeated records in 2011 WFTDA play: Gotham (10-0) and Oly (12-0). At the other end of the spectrum, a number of teams enter the tournament with just over a .500 record: Philly Roller Girls Liberty Belles (11-8), Charm City All Stars (9-7), and Nashville‘s Music City All Stars (7-5). The rest of the teams settle somewhere in the middle. The opening round features the “bottom eight” teams vying for a spot in the quarterfinals with the four regional winners. While Rocky Mountain (2nd West) should roll over Nashville (3rd South Central) and Philly (2nd East) should ring Naptown’s (3rd North Central) bell, look for a Charm City (3rd E) minor upset over Minnesota (2nd NC) and a similar Rose City (3rd W) upset over Kansas City (2nd SC). (It should be noted that Rose City and Naptown are the only two teams making their Championships debut). This chain of events would set up for some intriguing quarterfinal matchups, none more so than the potential Gotham vs. Rocky Mountain showdown that could occur Saturday morning.
Gotham has been absolutely dominant this season winning their bouts with an average margin of victory of 185 points (Rose City and Denver were the only teams to give them “trouble”: holding them to 68 and 71 point victories respectively). On top of that, Gotham seemed to improve as the season went on: they beat Steel City in April by 244 points; by the time of the Eastern Regionals (when both teams were peaking) they managed to increase that margin to an astonishing 374 points (the 404-30 semifinal victory was one of, if not the, most dominant performance in tournament history). As good as Rocky Mountain was, their performances this year (particularly that stunning July loss to Charm) has not been as confidence inducing. Call it the championship hangover, but it is highly conceivable that once again, the defending champs will make an early exit and finish out of the top four.
If any team can compete with Gotham this season, it is the Oly Rollers. While the two teams do have common opponents this year (Montreal, Denver and Rose City) it is difficult to compare the two records because of the markedly different styles they play. Gotham has seemingly mastered “bispeedual” derby: IE: they can skate with the best of them, but certainly don’t mind mucking it up in a slow, gritty game as well (they’ve embraced all isolation strategies and other evolutions of the sport including the walled and/or slow starts that are the latest trend). All along Oly has maintained their very simple game and are the masters of traditional “hit and run” derby. They are phenomenal skaters with otherworldly endurance and have shown that they can run opposition ragged. So while it is easy to see Oly advancing to their third straight final, it is much more difficult to see them defeating Gotham’s complete-game roller derby. Gotham, who has moved to the top of DNN’s Power Rankings and also the top of flattrackstats.com’s stats-based rankings, seems to be on the verge of reclaiming the Hydra Trophy that they last held in 2008.
As with last year, it could very well be an all East-West final four (Gotham, Oly, Rose and Charm), although Texas (who made up for a mediocre season with an amazing run at the South Central Regionals) seems in the best position to spoil the party given their potential quarterfinal showdown with Charm City (they met in May with Texas squeaking by in a 6 point victory).
So, is this the year that a two-time WFTDA champion is finally crowned? Will the coasts continue their derby dominance? Will the progenitors of flat track, the Texacutioners, return to their final-four form? Thankfully, we won’t have to wait much longer for the answers.
2011 WFTDA Champs Participants (2011 Records / DNN Power Ranking)
1. Gotham Girls Roller Derby All Stars (10-0 / #1)
2. Philly Roller Girls Liberty Belles (11-8 / #11)
3. Charm City Roller Girls All Stars (9-7 / # 12)
1. Oly Rollers Cosa Nostra Donnas (12-0 / #2)
2. Rocky Mountain Rollergirls 5280 Fight Club (7-2 / #3)
3. Rose City Rollers Wheels of Justice (9-5 / #4)
1. Texas Rollergirls Texacutioners (12-8 / #8)
2. Kansas City Roller Warriors All Stars (10-2 / #9)
3. Nashville Rollergirls Music City All Stars (7-5 / #19)
1. Windy City Rollers All-Stars (13-2 / #10)
2. Minnesota Roller Girls All Stars (9-3 / #13)
3. Naptown Roller Girls Tornado Sirens (12-3 / #14)
The Nerd’s thoughts on the playoffs so far: