Denver Roller Dolls

When the World Caught Up: Gotham looks (almost) beatable in winning fourth Hydra

Gotham won its fourth WFTDA title, but their opponents stole the show.

Gotham won its fourth WFTDA title, but its opponents stole the show.

Sometimes when you give performers a stage larger than any other that they have ever been on, they wilt under the spotlight. But sometimes they also rise up to meet that grandeur of that stage and give the performance of their life. At this weekend’s WFTDA Championship not one, but two teams were placed under the glaring light of that spotlight and were inspired to give the kinds of performances that will go down in history.

At the 9th Women’s Flattrack Derby Association championship, Gotham Girls Roller Derby, the sport’s greatest team thus far, won its fourth championship and third in a row, continuing an unprecedented run that had up until this weekend been defined by its dominance. Having won more than 40 games in a row over three years, with the final 22 of them having been by more than 100 points, the defending champs entered the weekend seeming very much like a monolith of dominance. And while they maintained their streak and proved—definitively once more—that they are the best there is, it was the opposition that stole the show.

Read Ogden Smash's Gotham vs. B.A.D. recap for Derby News Network (featuring photography by Danforth Johnson)

Read Ogden Smash’s Gotham vs. B.A.D. recap for Derby News Network (featuring photography by Danforth Johnson)

In its first championship, Ohio offered little resistance to Gotham in the quarterfinals (although they narrowly managed to avoid being part of a record-setting defeat with a comparatively strong second half in the 509-64 loss), and while everyone expected the Bay Area Derby Girls to do considerably better, no one in Milwaukee’s US Cellular Arena gave them much of a shot. Down 22-2 after three jams, things seemed to be unfolding as expected for Bay Area: Mighty Gotham once again tightening the noose early. But then something interesting happened: The B.A.D. Girls wouldn’t go away. Only a late 20-point power jam kept Gotham ahead by a significant amount (102-47 at half). The second half was much the same, with Bay Area winning over the hearts of the crowd and keeping pace with their opponents before succumbing to the champs 174-125, which was, impressively, the tightest margin Gotham had won by since June 2012.

The Texas Rollergirls Texacutioners, the grandmothers of our modern game, were apparently watching that semifinal (they’d already handily dispatched Denver in their semifinal 298-129) and must have drawn confidence from it; nonetheless, there were few, if any, who gave the skaters from Austin much of a chance in the final—indeed word around the track was that the B.A.D. vs. Gotham semi had essentially been the championship game. (Bay Area went on to finish third, handling Denver 224-174).

Gotham and Texas have a history that dates back all the way to the first WFTDA championship in 2006, where Texas defeated Gotham 32-16 in a ten-minute round robin seeding-game. Since then, they have met six times in sanctioned bouts with Gotham winning them all by increasingly larger margins culminating in Gotham’s 247 point victory (313-66) just six months ago at ECDX. With similar rosters and not much time between games, who would have expected anything different?

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall's Gotham vs. Texas recap for DNN (featuring the photography of Danforth Johnson)

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall’s Gotham vs. Texas recap for DNN (featuring the photography of Danforth Johnson)

Unlike the Bay Area showdown though, Gotham was unable to even pull ahead early with Texas leading 23-14 after four jams. Indeed, the two teams would trade leads throughout and only a very late 25-3 run over three jams would allow Gotham to pull away and successfully defend its Hydra with a narrow 199-173 win. In the pack, Smarty Pants, Polly Gone and Fifi Nomenon cemented their status as superstars, and while tournament MVP Bloody Mary led the way with the star, it was Hauss the Boss who would be the shocker in the final, pirouetting and leaping her way around Gotham packs and not looking out of place at all on the game’s grandest stage.

Beyond the shocker of those two games, the 2013 tournament was the best yet, and displayed an incredible growth of the game from a strategic and athletic point of view. Friday’s first-round matchups provided one of the greatest days of derby in tournament history, with an average margin of victory in the 20s. And while the quarterfinals didn’t quite provide the same level of intensity, there were moments of brilliance: for example in the Texas vs. Atlanta quarterfinal there was a jam that began as a tightly knit scrum start that didn’t break apart as it approached and then moved beyond turn one; then turn two. As the amoebic-like mass of bodies churned and grinded its way around the track, the crowd slowly began to clap, then cheer, then stand to applaud the gritty, sticky brilliance of the defensive derby on display: it was flat track roller derby at its very best.

The WFTDA ruleset has taken a lot of criticism, with many saying that the game is too slow, but there was little of those kinds of discussions this weekend, and one can expect that there won’t be many more to come. As slow as the slowest moments in the games were, there were breathtaking bursts of speed—the fastest roller derby ever seen. And this is the beauty of the WFTDA ruleset: that contrast between grinding slowness and blazing speed that can be achieved. And while the rules are still in relative infancy and will continue to evolve (for example, there are still too many no-impact penalties called in the game, and there is still some discomfort over allowing a pack speed of absolute 0), but the quibbles of the recent years seem fairly insignificant after the display of the potential for the game seen this weekend. That Texas vs. Gotham final was as good a game of roller derby that has ever been played, with a level of intensity and excitement worthy of any sport at any level.

And not to be overlooked, the first ever Division 2 final between Santa Cruz and Jet City was just as exciting as its D1 counterpart; a last-jam one-point thriller (195-194 for Jet City) capping off a successful D2 experiment that is providing a massive competitive platform for the next generation of Ohios and Angel Citys and Atlantas—teams that could crack the top of the WFTDA list some day.

As hard as it is to walk away from another season, a brilliant season that saw international teams compete at an increasingly higher level (hello London, welcome to champs, and Melbourne, Toronto, Vancouver welcome to the party), that saw the sport reach new heights of competitive parity–as hard as it is to walk away, we can all take comfort in knowing how strong the future of flat track really is.

**A special thanks (and congrats) to the Brew City Bruisers for hosting such a fantastic tournament.

**All games were boutcast live and will be archived on WFTDA.TV.

Hydra 2013 WFTDA Champs

WFTDA Playoff Recap: Montreal bows out; London heads to champs

Denver, Ohio and London are the first teams to qualify for the 2013 WFTDA Championship tournament.

Denver, Ohio and London are the first teams to qualify for the 2013 WFTDA Championship tournament.

Montreal’s New Skids on the Block came into the opening weekend of the 2013 WFTDA playoffs with high hopes and the high seeding to match. Under the WFTDA’s new playoff seeding system, the Divisional groupings had teams much more evenly distributed than ever before, seeing traditional powerhouses like Rose City (5th) and scrappy upstarts like Wasatch (7th) given challenging seedings. It was made clear early on that Denver was the cream of this crop, while last year’s fan favourites Ohio finally put it all together to advance to the Championship tournament. Montreal, on the other hand, struggled throughout, never seeming to get it all together for a complete game, finishing fourth after a loss to their playoff rivals, London, who became the first international team to qualify for the WFTDA Championship tournament.

Gaining a bye to the quarterfinals, Montreal opened against a Wasatch team that had been forced to play a qualifying game earlier in the day (a one-sided win over Grand Raggidy). Facing a history of three-straight Friday losses in the playoffs, Montreal hoped to turn things around against the team from Salt Lake City. However, it was Wasatch who stormed out of the gates and had Montreal scrambling for almost the entire first half. Multiple early jammer penalties to Mel E Juana and Lil Mama (which would become a huge problem during the tournament) had Montreal in a deep hole early. However, it was uncharacteristically loose packs that were truly the Skids undoing. Although the trio of Jess Bandit, Surgical Strike  (often joined by vet Rae Volver) provided the most consistent pack of the night for the Skids, for the most part, Wasatch’s relentless blockers easily won the pack battles.

Read Lex Talkionis' complete Wasatch v. Montreal recap on Derby News Network (featuring the photography of Bob Dunnell and Dave Wood)

Read Lex Talionis’ complete Wasatch vs. Montreal recap on Derby News Network (featuring the photography of Bob Dunnell-pictured-and Dave Wood)

Nonetheless, the experienced and playoff-hardened Montreal skaters held it together in the second half and once they had a lead (they took their second and final lead with 14 minutes remaining in the half), were able to maintain it and hold off a weakening Wasatch attack. The 188-159 victory propelled Montreal into the final four, guaranteeing the Skids their highest finish in a tournament, and giving them two shots at a Championship berth.

Unfortunately, it was a similar story against Ohio in the second game. Inconsistent jamming and loose pack work (there were some awkward formation decisions, especially on power kills) gave Ohio the early lead, one they would not relinquish throughout. Heavy penalty troubles kept Montreal packs small and inconsistent, leaving the Skids unable to stick with any sort of consistent lines. The jamming was inconsistent as well, with Mel E Juana following strong jams with penalty-filled ones, a more conservative Greta Bobo struggling to pick up leads, and even the indefatigable Iron Wench committing a handful of penalties.

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall's full game recap on DNN (featuring photography by Dave Wood-pictured-and Bob Dunnell)

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall’s full Ohio vs. Montreal recap on DNN (featuring photography by Dave Wood-pictured-and Bob Dunnell)

Ohio, on the other hand, came into the tournament more prepared than they ever have been before. Last year, the skaters from Columbus seemed burned out by the time they reached Regionals, and with a lighter regular-season load in 2013, they were fresher and sharper than ever and controlled Montreal completely in the first half.

While Montreal tightened things up in the second, they were unable to complete the comeback. At about the midway point of the second, they were within striking distance and playing their best derby of the game, but they couldn’t draw Ohio into the kind of mistakes they needed to. Also uncharacteristically, Montreal seemed resigned to the loss over the last five or six minutes (despite finally getting leads consistently and being within the 40-50 point range) letting the clock run down and leaving two timeouts and an official review on the board, perhaps saving themselves for what they knew would be a tough, third-place bout.

The third place game marked the third straight season that Montreal and London would meet in the WFTDA playoffs (add to that an Anarchy in the UK showdown, and this matchup counts as London’s biggest rivalry), but it would not have the drama of the others. London was clearly playing the best derby of the team’s history on the weekend, having the wherewithal to withstand Rose City’s relentless push and defeat them in the quarterfinals, but also to stick with Denver (defending WFTDA third-place team, and a valid contender this season) in their semi-final.

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall's full game recap on DNN (featuring the photography of Dave Wood).

Read Justice Feelgood Marshall’s full London vs. Montreal recap on DNN (featuring the photography of Dave Wood).

Montreal’s Skids certainly played their best game of the weekend in the third-place bout, but they trailed virtually the whole game, and despite a few pushbacks, were never able to get within 80 points in the second half, untimely jammer penalties once again their undoing (although to the jammers’ credit, they were often drawn due to depleted packs). The win meant that London has become the first international team to qualify for the WFTDA Championship tournament joining Ohio and Denver from this Division (Denver took down Ohio in the final). Montreal’s fourth place finish, was their best ever at a playoff tournament as well. And it was fitting that the most experienced international playoff teams played in that deciding bout, a matchup that seemed almost destined to happen.

Although Montreal is out, for the first time ever, Canada can keep cheering at the WFTDA playoffs! Next weekend, in the second Divisional tournament, Vancouver’s Terminal City All Stars will be heading to Richmond, Virginia, where they will open the tournament against Tampa Roller Derby at 12:00 PM on Friday.

Read the Nerd’s full Canadian-Content preview here.

*All of the games were boutcast live on WFTDA.TV. Watch the archives here.

* Read the blow-by-blow recaps of each game on Derby News Network.

Pondering the Playoffs 2: WFTDA’s Western Regionals

I think we’ve already seen the WFTDA champions in their regional playoff. With all due respect to the South Central and North Central, the performance of Gotham last week coupled with the extraordinarily competitive level of the West Region playoff leads this Nerd to believe that as it was in 2010 the two coasts will dominate come the Championships (last year West was 1-2, East 3-4).

Portland hosted this year's WFTDA Western Regionals.

What is interesting to see emerge through these playoffs are the competitive “groupings” that exist within the regions. In the East (as we will certainly see in North Central and possibly in the South Central as well), there are fairly large disparity gaps in the upper levels. While Gotham has risen to a class of its own, Philly and Charm City are clearly in a distinct group followed by the fairly large competitive group of Steel City, London, Montreal, Carolina and Boston (there is a significant drop off here).  The West is perhaps the “best” because the disparity between the very best teams has lessened over the past year instead of increased. While Oly and Rocky Mountain clearly remain the cream of the West, both faced considerable challenges from teams in the competitive grouping behind them (Rose City and Rat City respectively). Bay Area and Denver round out the incredible top six. From what I could tell the third to sixth spots could have gone any which way, and had the tournament been played again next weekend I wouldn’t be surprised if these placings did switch (though Rose City looked like one madly determined team this weekend). There is a considerable drop off here from seventh to tenth once again.

Defending WFTDA champs Rocky Mountain has proven that it is more than capable of adapting to any style of play.

In terms of strategy, the starts were once again where all eyes were trained.  There is a lot of controversy surrounding the development of these strategies, though I think mostly in regards to the no-start strategy, which, in its inactivity and avoidance of game play, is actually an anti-strategy (and which was sadly in play during the Rocky Mountain-Rat City bout). While this baffles me right now (why don’t they want to play?? Rat City captain Carmen Getsome tries to explain), what I am increasingly becoming a fan of are the gritty starts formed by starting packs walling up at the jam line. There has been a lot of (unfair in my opinion) criticism of this strategy as well; after two weeks of seeing this be developed at the highest level, I think that there is a great opportunity for brilliance here (and we are already seeing counter-strategies emerging). On the final day of Westerns as the level of play rose, these starts were used less or in more opportune moments (again, some of the awkwardness we’ve previously seen from these slow starts is from the fact that one team is so much stronger than the other, or one team is simply unprepared). People’s overreaction to this reminds me of the overreaction people had to the emergence of trapping and isolation strategies in 2009: while it looked absurd and dramatic at first (because teams were just learning it), now trapping has become a fundamental aspect of the flat track and the dramatic backwards packs that were prevalent at all levels in ’09 are a thing of the past at the highest competitive level.  While I think rules for starting jams could be refined (in that they would have to start at some point!), I have a feeling that the slow or walled-start jams will quickly evolve into regularly accepted game play. I don’t like stop-derby, but I sure love slow derby.

One thing that I didn’t like seeing emerge was a level of “diving” that has been slowly creeping into the sport. Rose City especially, seemed quite adept at stretching a back-blocking minor into a major with a well-performed fall, or failing to avoid an outstretched leg that is “sort of” in the way. It’s a touchy situation and subject and one that I think warrants more rules consideration than many of the other refinements people usually so vehemently call for.

2009 champs Oly Rollers look poised for a third consecutive run ot the championships.

While it was really hard not to be disappointed that Denver didn’t at the very least make it to the semi-final showdown with Rocky Mountain, it will be harder in November when the hosts aren’t at the tournament they are hosting. Nonetheless, the West once again sends an extraordinary threesome to the Championship. And they—Oly especially—all seem to have a shot at the top four at least, but I have to wonder if either Oly or Rocky Mountain is capable of challenging Gotham right now. Despite Oly’s win on the weekend, Gotham has still increased their lead over them on flat track stats. Rocky Mountain may be too emotional a team and “loose” right now to be able to compete against the likes of Gotham, while Oly, on the other hand, seems to be the opposite: too rigid, simplistic in their game play. Oly seems set in their fast-skating, keep-it-simple ways (and why not? It’s worked so far), but I have a feeling that if things don’t go their way early on and Gotham is able to establish a physical, gritty, multi-paced and faceted game, Oly will have a hard time keeping up. Then again, maybe Gotham and Oly won’t even meet in the final; the brackets have not been set yet, but it would be a shame if the top West and East seeds were bracketed to meet earlier.

Next up, South Centrals! Where the historic Texas Rollergirls (Champs ’06) look to reclaim top spot from their traditional regional rivals Kansas City Roller Warriors (Champs ’07)

WFTDA CHAMPS PARTICIPANTS (as of 09, 26, 2011):

East:

1. Gotham Girls Roller Derby All Stars

2. Philly Roller Girls Liberty Belles

3. Charm City Roller Girls All Stars

West:

1. Oly Rollers Cosa Nostra Donnas

2. Rocky Mountain Rollergirls 5280 Fight Club

3. Rose City Rollers Wheels of Justice

Nerd Meat Part 8: The Great Leap Forward

Nerd Meat: The Nerd Does Derby

Part 8: The Great Leap Forward

 We ended a recent fresh meat session with an endurance check (the 25 laps in 5 minutes minimum skill requirement). I hit my 25 once again, but I felt like I should be getting better, getting more laps, and wasn’t sure how to improve. During my cool down a couple of astute skaters gave me with the same advice. Apparently I was skating too much like a hockey player: straightforward and without respect to the shape of the track. They made a few minor adjustments to my upper body, forcing me to overcompensate with the way I was taking turns: my inside arm was glued to my back, I looked as far beyond my position as possible. The results were noticeable almost immediately. Just a little tweak changed everything.

This wasn’t the first time either. Loosened trucks gave me better mobility; new, thinner wheels gave me more speed and allowed me to stop better. And it only makes sense that when you get to a certain level (in any sport), the adjustments that are made become increasingly smaller. Also, the changes become less about physical ability and more strategic (physical positioning and footwork, for example, instead of raw physical athleticism).

The Philly-hosted 2009 WFTDA champioships was a pivotal tournament for flat track roller derby.

By 2009, the sport of flat track roller derby had reached a similar point, it was growing without changing. But the continued development of WFTDA as a governing body for the sport was aiding in a massive spurt in the number of teams. There were literally hundreds of leagues (where only three years prior there’d barely been dozens), and from that first Dust Devil National Championship tournament in 2006, the competitive organization had grown quickly as well. By 2009 the organization was divided into four regions for the first time: East, West, North Central and South Central. With this expansion and the increased number of people playing and competing, teams were looking for a way to get an advantage over others. Whispers of change from the west, and hints of an altered approach to the game began to filter through derby circles. It all came to a head at the 2009 WFTDA Nationals in Philadelphia, when the sport of flat track roller derby changed forever.

The Denver Roller Dolls all star team, the Mile High Club, entered the tournament as an almost after thought as the third seed in the West, but there were subtle hints that this was a team poised for change. Like many of the all star teams, their uniforms were more athletic than the often theatrical costumes worn by home teams, and many of the Denver all stars had even reverted to using their real names. They opened the tournament against Kansas City, the second seed in the South Central and WFTDA champions in 2007. There was a slow and scrappy start to the bout; evenly matched in athleticism and ability, neither team could pull away for an advantage, and almost ten minutes in, Denver held a nail-biting 7-6 lead. The first power jam of the bout went Denver’s way, and very quickly, their pack took over. After eventually dividing the opposition pack and isolating one of the KC blockers at the back, Denver ground the pack to a screeching halt, shocking the confused blockers and drawing uncomfortable murmurs from the crowd. The jammer quickly picked up 20 points sailing by the dead pack, opening up a big lead that they would not relent. Denver never looked back that weekend, shocking the derby world with a third place finish in the tournament, but more importantly ushering in an era of strategic evolution that would define what the sport would look like. It was, in every way, a great leap forward for flat track roller derby, a sport-defining evolution that would finally, strategically any way, sever the remaining ties with the banked-track version of the sport that had preceded it.

Denver (seen here playing Windy City in the 2009 quarterfinals) brought trapping and isolation strategies to a larger audience at the 2009 WFTDA championship. (photo by Derek Lang)

As with all change, the isolation strategies have not been accepted lightly. Denver’s brilliant strategic play ignited a furious debate in the derby world that would continue right through to the 2010 WFTDA Championship. There was much skepticism and confusion over what was seen as a “manipulation” of the rules of the sport, culminating in the formation of the Slow Derby Sucks (SDS) movement that was out in full force at the 2010 tournament. Along with wearing SDS shirts and holding signs, in flyers distributed at the event the group urged people to boycott teams who employed slow pack strategies, despite the fact that in some way or another, the majority of the teams at the tournament employed pace strategies.

Astonishingly, the confusion continues. In an awkward article in the most recent issue of Blood & Thunder (“To Stop or Not to Stop,” Issue 16), the writer can’t seem to grasp the concept at all, and—despite the best attempts of the Denver skaters interviewed to explain that isolation strategies allow a team to control the pace of the pack—continually refers to this as intentionally destroying the pack (perhaps confusing it with the “taking-a-knee” strategy that often, inexplicably, gets lumped into the “slow game” controversy). SDS also continues to rally against this kind of change, seeming to centre their argument around the fact that they find it boring. “Skaters say that slow techniques are difficult,” a spokesperson explained in a recent interview, “and therefore showcasing skating skill, but are missing the point that the spectators want to be excited by the dramatic speed and agility which is the result of fast and furious, tight pack play.” While they do believe the sport should evolve, they are dead set against what they call the “extreme strategy” that is employed when the pack is stopped dead or even moves backwards.

A few Canadians, Mega Bouche (ToRD) and Lock N Roll (HCRG), show their love for slow derby at the 2010 WFTDA Championships. (Photo by Lucid Lou)

But I believe this thinking—which panders too much to the audience while at the same time questioning this audience’s ability to grasp strategies and skating techniques and appreciate them—is backward.  The reality is, is that the isolation and trap strategies that have now become an essential part of any competitive team’s arsenal represent the logical evolution of the sport (and the dramatic trapping that often occurred in 2009 rarely occurs anymore against teams that are evenly matched); for me, all this confusion lies in a misunderstanding of what the nature of the game really is. No matter what anyone says, roller derby is not, by nature or definition, exclusively a fast sport. Unarguably, the goal in roller derby is for a team to advance its jammer past the opposing team’s blockers to score points. The easiest way to accomplish this goal is, logically, to slow down the blockers (conversely, the best way to avoid being scored on is to speed up!). Therefore, one could easily argue that by nature and definition roller derby is just as much a slow game as it is a fast one.

Traditionally, roller derby was played in a fast, forward-moving way because it was played on a velodrome. When the track was flattened, this need to be in perpetual motion disappeared, freeing up skaters to explore the possibilities of being on a slower, much more controlled surface, and allowing them to find better ways to impede the progress of the opposing team’s blockers. As of the summer of 2011 pretty much every competitive flat track team employs some sort of isolation strategy (at the very least during power jams), and in most circles, the controversy seems to be a thing of the past.

The sport continues to grow, though not with quite the same leaps and bounds; on a macro level, the strategies of the game continue to be refined. On a micro level, players continue to make the slightest physical and equipment adjustments in an attempt to glean some kind of advantage. Increasingly, this is beginning to occur as early on as during the fresh meat process or on farm teams, before skaters ever take to the track competitively.

It was through all of these changes—the focus on strategic play, the necessity of increased training—that flat track roller derby has been defined; through these evolutions, the sport has finally found its identity.