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Sunday, August 1, 2010

My Kind of Town

This weekend's trip covered familiar roads, but the sports destination was a bit more out of the ordinary. I left the Glass City on Friday evening, headed west on I-80 to my sweet home, Chicago. The trip was a chance to visit my mom, who is recovering from knee replacement surgery. It also offered the chance to see only my second ever Cincinnati Rollergirls (CRG) road game. Unlike the first experience (Grand Rapids in February snow), this drive offered great weather and my canine co-pilot. The trip was uneventful, and we arrived safely at my mom's house, just outside Chicago proper. After a morning of errands and visiting, it was time for me to head to the UIC Pavilion for a roller derby doubleheader. It had been at least fifteen years since I had been to that arena, and my previous visit had been for a college basketball game. I do have a lot to say about the place as a roller derby venue, but I'll get to that after the bout recaps.

The first bout of the night was a battle of the B-Teams, with CRG's Silent Lambs taking on Windy City Rollers' (WCR's) Second Wind. The teams had played once before, with the Chicagoans posting a convincing victory at the Cincinnati Gardens. I expected an uphill battle for CRG, and things went according to form from the opening whistle. The Second Wind did everything well, sending its quick and agile jammers through the pack while holding up the Cincy jammers at the middle and back of the pack. Windy City's strategy was obvious: get lead jammer, make a scoring pass for four or five points, then call off the jam to avoid yielding any. In fact, this approach worked at least five times in a row at the beginning of the first half. More than six minutes elapsed before CRG gained lead jammer status, and that jam ended zero-zero as the Chicago jammer made up ground once she cleared the pack. Miss Print had a great initial pass for CRG soon thereafter, but she also could not turn lead jammer status into points. Windy City caught a power jam and supplemented that output with additional 3-0 and 4-0 jams. With seventeen minutes elapsed, the score stood at WCR 53, CRG 0.

At that point, Wheezy took the star and made a lightning-quick inside pass to get lead jammer, her long strides and excellent balance catching Chicago's blockers by surprise. She passed on the chance to call the jam at 4-0 and kept skating. Unfortunately, CRG's defense was not able to hold up the WCR jammer. Wheezy tallied 12 points, but her counterpart nearly equaled her. Still, I could sense the Lambs exhaling and settling down a bit, having finally broken through. Miss Print had a couple more effective jams and Pistol Whippin Wendy posted a nine-point power jam near the end of the first half, but the score favored Windy City 91-33 at halftime.

The Silent Lambs were facing quite a bit of firepower, but they skated tenaciously and acquitted themselves very well in the second half. The coaches, jammers, and blockers should all share credit for some effective halftime adjustments, as CRG exploited the inside line to get a more substantial share of lead jammer calls. Also, it was clear that the Lambs were sending more blockers to the back of the pack to play offense. Once the CRG jammer got free of the rear walls, Cincy's blockers slowed the pack to force Chicago's pivot and other front blockers into some 20-foot calls. The Second Wind did not relent, however, and CRG's traditional penalty issues allowed the Chicagoans to control many packs. In the end, Windy City captured a 184-96 victory.

The decision on MVP's for the Silent Lambs was a difficult one. Quite honestly, no one had the kind of magnificent game that would lead to an easy choice. Each CRG skater had some notable rough spots in her performance. Yet, a number of them had outings that were praiseworthy in general. In terms of the jammers, I kept re-opening my internal debate, but each time returned to the same answer. I was worried that my bias toward a favorite skater was clouding my decision, but I'm giving the nod to Miss Print. She skated aggressively, finding holes in the Windy City defense and seizing them. Her speed on the open track was superb, and she showed toughness, bouncing back from some questionable hits at (or beyond) the 20-foot mark to get out and score some points. The downside to her performance was that she took the star to the penalty box on at least three occasions, yielding good scoring opportunities for the opponent. Still, her determination and ferocity were a welcome sight. One memorable second-half jam featured Miss Print with some late jammer-on-jammer action, preventing a WCR skater from completing a grand slam.

Wheezy was the other potential choice for MVP. She got off to a pretty slow start, as she and her teammates were consistently stymied by WCR's power and precision. As the bout progressed, she began to find her comfort level, and my best estimate places her as CRG's eventual leading scorer for the bout. It speaks to her overall body of work this season that Wheezy had an "off" game by her standards, yet was still a top performer. She is an impressive talent, and I expect that she will continue to use her speed, power, and balance to lead CRG to greater heights in the near future. Wheezy also deserves credit for her mental acuity and conditioning, as she seems to get stronger and more effective late in the game.

Turning to CRG's other jammers, Pistol Whippin Wendy showed some nice moves in navigating some solid WCR packs. Polly Rocket's performance mirrored her team's, as she was boxed in for most of the first half but showcased some strong jams in the second. Bombtrack took a few turns with the star in front of her hometown crowd, to similarly mixed results.

I found it very difficult to evaluate the blockers in this game, for a handful of reasons. First, the shift in strategy to more offensive pack play at the back end was a pretty radical departure from the "set up a wall at the front and play defense" style that CRG usually employs. Also, the Silent Lambs spent so much time in the penalty box that there were often only two blockers on the track. In fact, I counted at least three occasions when a third CRG blocker had to be turned away from a full sin bin. Finally, and most importantly, The Second Wind skaters were so talented that it was often tough to tell whether a Lambs blocker did poorly or was defeated by an excellent play. Overall, the typically staunch front of the pack struggled, while the middle and back were mostly effective.

Individual blocking kudos go to a number of Lambs. Cherry Choke played a steady two-way game, both giving (assists) and taking away (some nice, fluid jammer take-outs near the front of the pack). Geez Louise continued her pattern of effective play, especially in terms of walling off Chicago blockers to give her jammers inside lanes. Ruff'n The Passer brought the pain, notably with a tremendous hit on WCR's excellent triple-threat Rose Feratu. Mirderher contributed some bruises to Windy City's Sunday morning, in addition to totally winning the "Black Betty" dance-off during an official time out.

As I mentioned, it was difficult to accurately rate performances for this bout, but I chose two CRG blockers to join Miss Print on the MVP Honor Roll. Nik Jagger, by virtue of the change in blocking strategy, the team's frequent penalty difficulties, and the absence of front-end running mate Celia Graves, had quite a tough task. There were occasions when Windy City elongated the pack, giving one of its quick jammers plenty of room and momentum to juke Nik. Overall, however, Nik did a commendable job holding a shorthanded pack together. When her teammates were able to provide some cover behind her, she was also able to put the brakes on many a WCR jammer. The final MVP nod goes to the Librarian. The Librarian's performance often goes overlooked because it tends to be, well, quiet. There are few punishing, open-track hits, and she often is positioned mid-pack, where it's tough to see her one-on-one blocks. Simply put, The Librarian excels at making positive plays. Whether it's sliding to the inside to put WCR jammer Ruth Enasia into the infield or positioning herself perfectly to keep a blocker away from the Lambs' jammer, she makes smart, sound plays. Also, while I had some trouble keeping track of who was in the penalty box, it seemed that The Librarian played a very clean game and rarely put her team at a disadvantage by taking a one-minute sabbatical.

Windy City's Second Wind features many talented skaters,and I'm certain that quite a few of them would be A-Team mainstays in other leagues. Ruth Enasia was actually on loan from the WCR All-Stars, and she was tough to contain while wearing the star. She is tall and lean, but she has the moves and agility of a smaller jammer. Once those long legs get churning away from the pack, there's very little time to prepare before she's back again. Also, if she's single, I might be able to introduce her to a native Chicagoan who enjoys watching and even writing about derby. Other standouts were Zoe Atrocious and Rose Feratu, both of whom were equally adept at blocking and jamming. AliSin Chains came to snuff the jammer and enjoyed much success. Bork Bork Bork was an outstanding blocker and a crowd favorite, while Mya Ssault delivered the hit of the bout, absolutely leveling Ruff'n The Passer along the straightaway.

The evening's main event was a battle between the visiting Boston Massacre (#3 in the WFTDA East Region, #10 in the DNN Power Rankings) and the Windy City Rollers All-Stars (WFTDA #1 North Central, DNN #11). WCR absolutely controlled the first half, riding star jammers Beth Amphetamine, Varla Vendetta, and Shocka Conduit and outstanding pack play to a big 76-29 halftime lead. On their way to putting away an emphatic victory, Windy City suddenly forgot how to stay out of the penalty box. When the packs were relatively equal and both jammers were on the floor, Chicago was clearly the better team. Boston did most of its second half scoring on a handful of power jams, with Claire D. Way and Sugar Hits keeping the scoreboard operator busy. Windy City did its best to slowly give the game away with penalty trouble, but give the Massacre credit for stamina and determination. By the time the clock read three minutes remaining, the bout was nearly tied. With the partisan Chicago crowd finally showing some signs of life, WCR held onto a mere six-point lead with one jam to go. Windy City's jammer took lead status and skated away from the pack as the final seconds ticked away. At zero, it was hands to the hips and drive home safely.

While Chicago and Boston are both excellent teams with great speed, this bout was all about aggression. Windy City built a big lead by being the physically dominant team, then gave it away by playing a bit too fast and loose with the hits. The most impressive WCR skater overall was Jackie Daniels, who coincidentally was the only skater for either team I had previously seen live (when she was with Grand Raggidy). It looked like the jump up in competition level brought out the best in Jackie, as she was often a one-woman wall at the front of the pack. She not only dished out some punishing hits, but also proved her mastery of positional blocking. If all of that wasn't enough, she took some very impressive turns with the star, especially early in the second half with her team in freefall.In addition to those of the skaters mentioned earlier, I also came away impressed with the skills of Athena DeCrime, Blossom Bruiso, and Hoosier Mama.

Boston got a gutsy and outstanding performance from Sugar Hits, who bounced back from one vicious hit after another and kept taking the star with maximum effort. Anna WrecksYa took the fight to the Chicagoans, while Killary Clinton managed to duck out of Chelsea's wedding long enough to play a sharp two-way game. Maura Buse was quick and smart, and her small stature belied the power of the collisions she caused. It would be difficult to imagine either of these two teams missing out on more bouts on this floor come early November, when the WFTDA National Tournament will be held there at the Pavilion.

Let's move on and discuss my overall impressions of the evening. In terms of the venue itself, Windy City's home arena had a "big-time" feel to it, with electronic signage all around and full-service concession stands. Also - and this is a big deal for someone who usually watches bouts at the Cincinnati Gardens - the bouts were contested in air-conditioned bliss and the sound system was superb. Unfortunately, those and the quality of play are among the few positives in the overall WCR experience. One of my biggest complaints is the expense of a night out at the derby there. A general admission ticket was $20, but quickly became $29 and change with the exorbitant ticket fees. For the price of one ticket in an uncomfortable plastic GA seat, I could sit first row trackside for two CRG bouts. The parking was similarly ridiculous at $13, considering that there were no other events taking place nearby and the UIC Pavilion is not really close to the Loop. The $5 jumbo hot dog was worth it, as it was almost as good as my all-time favorite ballpark food, the Comiskey Jumbo Kosher Dog. A bottle of pop, however, ran $4, which is pricier than at many Major League stadia. I realize that the overall cost of living is considerably higher in Chicago than in Cincy or Toledo, but the prices generally seemed excessive.

The cost may have been one reason that the crowd was unimpressive. By my estimate, there were no more than a few hundred fans present by halftime of the first bout, and not even a thousand by the time the All-Star bout took shape. The fans also didn't seem fully into the game. On only a few occasions did the crowd provide substantial noise and energy, and that is a shame, considering the quality of the teams themselves. I nicknamed my row the "ADD Seats," since I had to stand to let people in and out every minute or two during the first bout. The fans weren't even considerate enough to wait for a jam to end before walking around in front of those of us who actually cared about the action. I eventually moved to a seat near the top of one of the corners, in order to watch the game without interruption.

The other thing this bout lacked was the opportunity to mingle with the skaters on the floor at the end of the night. By the time I got down to the floor to talk with the few assembled CRG skaters (no more than 2-3 minutes after the second bout), nearly every single WCR skater had vacated the area, and the crew was pulling up tape from the floor. I had really hoped to meet some of the Chicago and Boston skaters, but I never got the chance. Even the CRG skaters were being hustled out so quickly that I barely had the chance to speak with any. I got a few quick hellos with Trauma, Wheezy, Hop Devil, and Sk8r Kinney. It was only thanks to The Librarian, who very kindly went out of her way to find me in the crowd, that I even got time for that, plus a few minutes with her and Miss Print. I have only been to a few bouts away from the Gardens, but I think that teams fumble a chance to build a stronger fan base by not being available for the meet-and-greet after the bout. While the derby action is great, I doubt that I would have bought 2011 Season Tickets for CRG if not for the fact that I've really enjoyed talking to so many of the skaters before making the long trek back to Toledo.

Those complaints aside, I really did enjoy my trip to Chicago and my first experience with the Windy City Rollers. I got to support my favorite team on the road, while also watching two teams with strong national profiles. I got to visit with my mom and eat some of my local favorites, Giordano's sausage deep dish and Connie's beef sandwich and tamales. So, it's no wonder that each time I roam, Chicago is calling me home, Chicago is. I'll be back in that same old place in just a month, for White Sox and Cubs games. Until then, I'll leave you with my prediction for Sunday, September 12 at Soldier Field: Da Bears 314, the Lions negative-2.