Nashville Roller Derby

Conquered but not Divided: Gotham Becomes First Two-time WFTDA Champ

You’ve just walked into the 1st Bank Center on the outskirts of Denver, Colorado. It’s the third game of the 2011 WFTDA Championship and the first thing you hear is the roar of a crowd; then the already ragged voice of an over-excited track-side announcer calling a “grand slam.” You rush along the crowded concourse passing derby vendors and over-priced beer hawkers until finally finding an opening. You rush up a set of stairs and for a brief moment, as you gaze out over the thousands for that first glimpse of big-stadium derby, the track looking impossibly larger and smaller than anything you’ve seen before because of the scope of the game and the grandness of the stage, your breath is taken away. So taken by the sight are you that it takes a moment to gather yourself, to look about for a place to sit. You feel like you’ve somehow stumbled onto an oracle summoning the future of flat track roller derby; until, of course, you manage to sit and gather yourself, take a deep breath and realise: the future is now.

*

For the second year in a row the extraordinarily talented Oly Rollers lost in the WFTDA Championship bout to a team that played a more sophisticated game; a grittier, slower, more nuanced version of the sport, one that has evolved on the flat track and that each year looks a little more different from the banked track game that preceded it. And that could be at the heart of Oly’s inability to hold their position at the top of the heap: in many ways they still play a banked track version of the sport on a flat surface, what has on the digital pages of this site been referred to as “hit and run” roller derby.

Oly and Gotham in the 2011 final.

Oly is, without a doubt, a team of immensely proficient skaters, and one-on-one, a player such as the magnificent Sassy is still able to mesmerize with her timing and instinct, and so good are they—so mind-bogglingly talented are they—that they are still able to dominate pretty much any team on the planet that is playing the game. While last year, it took late-game heroics for Rocky Mountain to foil Oly’s attempt to defend the title, this year in the final they often looked perplexed against Gotham. Stunned at times in the second half of their surprisingly undisciplined 140-97 loss, for here was a team that embraced the tactics emerging organically from playing the game on a flat surface, but here also was a team that could skate. They could hit, they had the footwork, the endurance and raw skill. In the final of the 2011 WFTDA Championship Gotham Girls Roller Derby may have emerged as the first perfect flat track team. Not just a perfect roller derby team, but a perfect flat track one. In a sport as young and as “unfinished” as this one is, we may finally have ourselves a model off which to base the future.

While there was still some resistance to change at this year’s championship, there wasn’t as much of the cynicism that sometimes marred the experience of last year’s tournament (the insulting and narrow-minded “Slow Derby Sucks” movement, for example, that among other things, called for boycotts of particular teams in propaganda-ish flyers). And while boos did reign down when things didn’t get moving at the start line (hopefully for the teams that allowed it to happen and not those who were taking advantage of the teams who didn’t know what to do, or didn’t realize it was to their detriment), there was less meanness behind it, and the signs in the crowd that insulted teams last year were replaced in 2011 by more good-natured, even playful ones like “Occupy The Pivot Line,” or “The Pivot Line Needs Love Too.”

Minnesota All Stars were a much different team from the one that lost in the first round in 2010.

While a lot of the fans have certainly embraced the multi-speed nature of the flat track game (remember, as recently as 2009 fans were still booing trapping tactics on power jams), it seems that all of the top teams have come around as well. The Minnesota Girls All Stars are probably the best example of a league and a team that has finally come to embrace the flat track game. Although one of the oldest leagues in flat track history, only one year ago, at last year’s championship, it looked as though the sport had passed them by. They seemed reluctant to play the slow-game tactics that had come to define flat track, and relied on traditional hit and run strategies. They were destroyed in the opening round by the multi-speed, multi-strategy Charm City Roller Girls 249-118.

What a difference a year makes.

After a thrilling run at the North Central Regionals that came up just short, Minnesota was drawn in the first round against Charm City once again. While it was a similar Charm team to last year’s, Minnesota could not have been more different, or more prepared. They played a slower, more patient game, and the bout was full of nerdy derby as nearly every jam began with what is coming to be called a “rugby” or “scrum” start. Minnesota, looking like a revitalized team, got their revenge, 160-121.

Kansas City, champions in 2007, was the breakout team of the 2011 tournament.

As exciting as it was to see an original WFTDA team buy into the more contemporary version of the sport, as fitting as it seemed that Texas returned (after only one year’s absence) to the final four, and as thrilling as it was to see WFTDA crown its first two-time champion, this was a tournament of breakouts. While Sassy may still be the smartest and best one-on-one blocker in the game, her teammate, Hockey Honey (a Jet City transfer), looks to be a super-blocker in training and needs to add just a bit of control to her game to become considered one of the best there is. And finally, surprising tournament MVP and super-breakout player Kelly Young (along with her big-time blocker teammate Eclipse) led the breakout team of the tournament, Kansas City Roller Warriors, all the way to a surprising birth in the final four (they seemed to run out of steam against Texas in the third place bout leading early on before fading in the end and falling 136-112). Though it should be noted that Kelley Young has had a storied career in the sport, this was the year her name finally lit up the marquee and the larger flat track community took notice. Finally, Gotham, who seemed a top player or two on the depth chart away from competing last year, was pushed over the edge by transfer skaters Sexy Slaydie (a monster in the pack from Nashville) and Wild Cherri (Tampa Bay) who finally gave the team a consistent and formidable three-jammer rotation that was untouchable in the tournament and was a huge factor in their championship victory.

*

As you follow the stream of spent fans exiting 1st Bank Centre, your head humming, the roar of the crowd still echoing, you come to the realization that with each passing WFTDA Championship, that with each passing season, the game continues to find itself; this year it seemed more stable in its identity, more confident in what it has become. Born from a game of speed and agility on a banked surface, it has evolved into its own species: a game of pace and stability on a flat track that looks less and less like the sport that parented it less than a decade ago. And as you pull out of Denver, the sounds of the games still ringing in your ears, the city rising up among the mountains that fall away as your plane ascends, you think to yourself, contentedly, that the sport of flat track roller derby has finally become what it will be.

**For complete game-by-game recaps, visit DNN

Divide and Conquer: A Preview of the 2011 WFTDA Championships

Continental Divide and Conquer: The 2011 WFTDA Championships (Denver, Colorado; November 11-13)

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.

The first WFTDA champs, the Texas Rollergirls, join every other previous champ at this year's tournament.

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.

2009 champs Oly Rollers were the first team to appear in back-to-back championship games.

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 not been as dominant in 2011.

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.

THE PARTICIPANTS

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 Girls Roller Derby looks poised to win their second WFTDA championship.

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.

Naptown joins Rose City as they only first timers in the 2011 WFTDA Championship.

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)

East:

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)

West:

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)

South Central:

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)

North Central

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 bracket for the 2011 WFTDA Championships in Denver, Colorado (November 11-13). (Click to enlarge)

**** Read DNN’s team-by-team preview here. Tune in to all the action live on WFTDA.com.****

The Nerd’s thoughts on the playoffs so far:

Pondering the Playoffs 1: Eastern Regionals

Pondering the Playoffs 2: Western Regionals

Pondering the Playoffs 3: South Central Regionals

Pondering the Playoffs 4: North Central Regionals