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Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Running on Empty

(Note: I do have a post about attending a Chicago Blackhawks game last month rattling around in my head, but I'm going to go out of order here, in hopes of remembering Saturday's action more accurately.)

The title of this post pretty well covers my state of body and mind Saturday, as I hit the road to Cincinnati for my first Cincinnati Rollergirls bout of the season. (The team had played its first bout two weeks earlier, but I was in Chicago for the previously mentioned hockey game. Since I completely missed that bout, this post may lack the proper context at times. Please forgive any misstatements or poor assumptions on my part.) So, a very busy week at work left me more than ready for some leisure time, but not especially excited for a seven-hour round trip in the car. I rose from my slumber a bit early for a non-teaching Saturday, in order to watch some of Derby News Network's (DNN) live video of the big tournament in London. After catching the first bout and a bit of the second, it was time to start my long day in earnest. I had some responsibilities for Planned Pethood, a pet rescue and adoption agency I support here in Toledo, so I got my dog into the car and off to help out at the adoption event. After taking care of that, we made a stop by the County Dog Warden's office to drop off some treats for the dogs residing there. From that stop, we made our way back up to southern Michigan to drop her off for her weekend play date, and I went back home, where I had about 30 minutes to get my act together and leave for the main portion of the day's driving.

I left early, expecting to hit thunderstorms on the way. Thankfully, I didn't encounter any, and I stopped near Dayton to take care of a couple of things for work. Neither that stop nor the beyond-annoying construction traffic on I-75 in and around Dayton (now in its 14th consecutive year!) kept me from arriving at the Cincinnati Gardens quite early. I pulled into the lot around 5:15, but I saw no signs of tailgating, so I decided to stand around inside the building until the doors opened at 6pm. I found a spot along the wall in the concourse, which was not difficult, seeing as I was one of approximately one fan waiting to get in at that time. Trauma skated out to take care of something at the ticket window and stopped to chat for a moment, but I otherwise stood around and waited. This was not exactly a bad thing, considering the length of time I had been (and would soon be) sitting.

Once the gates opened, I took a seat in my usual spot: turn three, facing directly down the back straightaway. I flipped through the program, briefly taking note of the composition of the two CRG teams for the evening. I decided to get a bratwurst and hit the merch booth (got one of the new gray T-shirts) before the place got more crowded, then returned to my seat to watch warm-ups. Hop Devil stopped by for a quick and friendly chat, and I wandered over to the announcers' area to talk with Miss Print, who was working on the textcast for the bouts. While I was over that way, I saw Rabid Derby Fan Earl (whom I had met in Chicago at WFTDA Championships), and we chatted for a bit as well. It was nice to see Earl moving up in the world, with an official CRG job and his name in the program. After the end of warm-ups, we were treated to an excellent performance of the Star-Spangled Banner, by a four-man a capella group called "The Mistics."

As usual, I'll take care of the bout recaps first and finish with some overall observations.

*** The evening's first bout featured the visiting Gem City Rollergirls (GCR), of Dayton, taking on CRG's Silent Lambs (B-Team). This bout had a strange ebb and flow to it. Early on, both teams' packs were struggling badly, yet the score stood at only 8-8 after six minutes. On two of the first four jams, Gem City's Dizzy Queen earned lead jammer with very little resistance, only to be caught from behind on the open track by the Lambs' outstanding newcomer, Nastee. Both of those occasions produced zero-zero jams. The home team settled in a bit, as Cherry Choke and Poppy Chulo put up a nice 2-wall at the back and Nastee busted through for a grand slam. Then, Hop Devil got going, in part thanks to an excellent assist at the front of the pack by Candy Kickass. Suddenly, CRG was taking control, running the score to 26-8 after 11 minutes of play.

*** A textbook 4-0 jam by GCR's Racey Rocker began to swing the momentum to Dayton's side. On the next jam, Nastee got out as the lead jammer and hit the pack just ahead of her Gem City counterpart on her first scoring pass. Nastee was blocked at the front of the pack, and she passed on a chance to call the jam with a 3-1 point advantage. Each jammer completed two scoring passes, and Nastee got held up as her opponent tacked on a third. Finally, in frustration, Nastee called off the jam on the downside of a 12-8 margin. It just got worse from there, as the Silent Lambs' Polly Rocket took the star to the box, and Gem City used that power jam to cut the CRG lead to 39-34 with one minute remaining in the half. In the final jam, CRG faced the scary prospect of starting in the worst possible position, trying to kill a power jam with only two skaters in the pack against Gem's four. Somehow, Cincinnati not only managed to limit the damage, but even to eke out a 4-3 differential to close the half up 43-37.

*** Early in the second half, Nastee and a smart, strategic CRG pack combined to roll up 25 points on a big power jam. The teams traded shots for a while, and the Lambs led 87-52 with just over seven minutes remaining. The ladies from Dayton mounted a comeback, led by the big hits of Juwana Hurt and Cozza Frenzy and the jamming of Racey Rocker and Supersonic. Racey posted a double grand slam late in the game to tighten the gap to 91-70 with one minute remaining. Any hopes of an amazing comeback, however, were dashed when GCR's jammer went to the box on the last jam, leaving Nastee to get lead and watch the time tick away, ending the game on a scoreless jam.

*** The MVP on the Lambs' side was definitely Nastee. She was the fastest skater on the track, and she powered right through the center of many a Gem City 2-wall. One could make the argument that she was one of CRG's top defensive players, as her ability to catch an opposing lead jammer and force zero-zero jams (on at least four occasions by my count) saved countless Gem City tallies. While she did show off a few moves, Nastee's game is primarily about speed and straight-line power. Her crossover strides in the turns led to excellent bursts of speed coming into the straightaways. Nastee took some major shots throughout the bout, including a single jam the featured vicious shots from both Juwana Hurt and Punky Rooster. She showed the toughness to finish the bout well, even after taking the star for nearly half of the total jams.

*** Hop Devil was next in terms of turns wearing the star. She had an up-and-down performance, although it's tough to judge how much of that was due to the inconsistency in the CRG pack. Hop Devil had a tough time gaining lead jammer status and often had to be content with pushing her opponent to call off a jam prior to completing a scoring pass. At times, she looked outstanding, dodging blocks and patiently allowing her blockers to provide assists. Her best jam of the evening was a 9-1 power jam, during which she was absolutely leveled by Cozza Frenzy, yet managed to pop back up quickly to add points. Polly Rocket was the third jammer for CRG, and her results were a mixed bag as well, although she did some effective work as a blocker.

*** Turning to CRG's blockers, Candy Kickass was the best of the bunch. She was often a one-woman wall at the front of the pack, combining excellent positional work with a few unexpectedly punishing hits. Unfortunately, the middle of CRG's pack was often out of position or caught unaware by a Gem City jammer, so Candy's performance took on a game-saving quality. Poppy Chulo also had a very effective game. She did a nice job as pivot, controlling the speed of the pack and trapping Gem City blockers to slow things down on CRG power jams. Silent Lambs captain Cherry Choke dished out some hits, including a beautiful jammer take-out on Supersonic late in the game. Maime was one of the few CRG blockers to have some success in the middle of the pack, and she had an awesome "right place, right time" moment late in the first half. Maime came out of the penalty box just in time to completely obliterate a Gem City jammer who never saw her coming. I noticed Bex Pistol with an excellent bridge early in the game that kept CRG's front wall from going out of play.

*** The Lambs used a few skaters I had never seen before, and the roster was missing many familiar names. I honestly have no insight as to the reason for this. Maybe some skaters were unavailable, or perhaps the coaches saw this as an easier matchup and took the opportunity to experiment. It might have been something altogether different. No matter the motivations, the results weren't very good. The CRG packs often seemed disorganized, and many of the blockers aside from those mentioned earlier did not have great games. I thought that the pack play from both teams was sloppy, and that CRG might have slipped into bad habits as a result. Some very blatant back blocks by Gem City jammers (three of which happened directly in front of me) were completely ignored by the zebras, and I'm sure that made it tough to maintain pack discipline as well.

*** On the Gem City side, Racey Rocker had the most success from the jammer line. She is a very effective all-around player. She didn't have one overwhelming trait (speed, power, moves), but she did everything well. She also is a very heady skater, always having a plan and ready to exploit a crack in the CRG blocking when one developed. Rage-L showed some nice speed and wasn't shy about sticking her shoulder into the middle of a pair of blockers. Supersonic and Dizzy Queen rounded out the jammer rotation, but neither of them got into much of a rhythm.

*** The GCR pack, while often comprised of some talented skaters, never really seemed cohesive enough to control the action. It was frequently outmaneuvered by Cincy in terms of speed control, and it did not utilize multiple player walls as effectively as its opponent. The more wide-open pack led to some serious one-on-one hitting, not surprisingly led by powerhouse Juwana Hurt. She was the only Gem City blocker to square up Nastee with any consistency, and she dropped Hop Devil to the infield with a shot that brought many a sympathetic wince from the crowd. Cozza Frenzy and Punky Rooster also left their marks on CRG's squad.

*** After a short break, it was time for the main event, in which CRG's Black Sheep (A-Team) welcomed the Fort Wayne Derby Girls (FWDG). I honestly wasn't expecting much of a contest, as Cincinnati came in ranked 5th in the North Central Region (WFTDA) and 16th in all of derby (DNN). Fort Wayne was ranked 15th in the North Central, unranked in the DNN poll. Form held, and the Black Sheep took control of the game early. CRG won the point differential on five of the first six jams, the only exception being a 2-1 edge for Pushy Cat over K Lethal. By the time Wheezy posted a 14-0 jam, it was 39-7 in favor of CRG after ten minutes. Over the next ten minutes, Fort Wayne showed some signs of life, as Majestic earned (by my recollection) her team's first lead jammer call, almost 17 minutes in, earning an 8-4 advantage. Nonetheless, after 20 minutes, the CRG lead stood at 51.

*** The next jam was FWDG's best of the night. Majestic rolled up 12 points, as her pack battered and frustrated K Lethal. Pink Painther did the majority of the damage, supplying some devastating hits at the back of the pack. Any thoughts of a momentum shift, however, quickly vanished when Hannah Ouchocinco immediately took advantage of a power jam, to the tune of 14-2 CRG. The half ended with the score CRG 108, FWDG 55.

*** The second half began with a few uneventful and low-scoring jams. Then, K Lethal took to the jammer line by herself. Hopes of multiple grand slams quickly disappeared, as she completely lost a wheel near turn two. K carefully made her way to the box, and the jammer switch put FWDG into the power jam. The Cincy blockers were up to the task, speeding away with the pack, and Fort Wayne managed only two points on the jam. CRG took a timeout while two of her teammates brought a skate to K, leaving her with a mismatched pair. Unfortunately, she came out of the box and approached the back of the pack before the jammer whistle was blown, sending her directly back to the sin bin. The teams punched and counter-punched until Fort Wayne's Pushy Cat took the star to the penalty box, leaving K Lethal and a very slow CRG pack to do some serious scoring, ending the jam 21-4. From there, not much changed, and CRG finished with a 187-105 victory. Fort Wayne kept it closer than I expected, losing to CRG by fewer points than did 2010 WFTDA Championships participant Nashville just two weeks before.

*** The Black Sheep employed a three-jammer rotation, and all were effective. K Lethal had the best night, due to her impressive speed and balance, as well as her knack for being on the track when a FWDG jammer went to the box. Even on a borrowed skate, she was two steps faster than the opposing jammers virtually all night. Hannah Ouchocinco had a very steady performance, rarely breaking out with a big jam, but doing the right things to tactically and incrementally give her tea the advantage. She also had a wonderful start-and-stop move right in front of me (turn three) on an early jam. Wheezy proved she belongs on the A-Team with a very good performance. It certainly seems like she's added some power to her game since last year, while maintaining her speed and agility.

*** In the pack, CRG employed a strategy I had not seen from them in a while, often sending all four blockers to form a wall at the front of the pack. At other times, Cincy stuck to its more common two in the front, one middle, and one back set-up. No matter the alignment, CRG's blockers were generally effective in controlling the speed of the pack and the movements of the opposing jammer. At times, the middle of CRG's pack got a little loose, and I'm sure this will be a point of emphasis as the Sheep quickly approach the meat grinder section of their schedule (beginning with this weekend's bout at Texas).

*** Luckily, when the back or middle of CRG's pack faltered, standout blockers were ready at the front. Bout MVP Trauma seemed to be everywhere, her smooth skating and quick reflexes suddenly closing a hole before a FWDG jammer could reach it. While most of her work was positional in nature, Trauma also brought the thunder with some powerful one-on-one hits. Joining Trauma with some great blocking work were birthday girl Sk8r-Kinney, captain Karma Krash, and Buckhead Betty. I've seen quite a bit of roller derby so far this year (including teams such as Denver, Rose, and Rat), but I have rarely seen as technically-sound and frustrating a 2-wall as Trauma and Kinney at the front of the pack.

*** Other notable blocking work came courtesy of Jungle Lacy, whose quickness made her very tough to pass. Nuk'em did what she does best, dishing out hits when the Fort Wayne jammers caught a bit of daylight. Killian Destroy is one of the most under-appreciated skaters on CRG's roster, and she brought her usual solid, consistent game. Finally, I must recognize Mirderher for her hockey-style devotion to her team's star jammer. In the last minute of the game, FWDG's Enya Grave was taking some unnecessary liberties (some might say cheap shots) with K Lethal as the clock wound down. Mirderher caught sight of this, and like a great enforcer should, locked in on the offender and flattened her.

*** On the Fort Wayne side, I was impressed by jammers Majestic and Pushy Cat. Both of them featured very good speed and toughness, plus excellent track awareness. Plus, I absolutely loved Pushy Cat's attitude and persona on the track. She is the one opposing skater I would have most liked to meet. FWDG's other two main jammers had a tougher time of it. Riptide got free on a couple of occasions, while Enya Grave never really solved the CRG pack. In terms of blockers, Pink Painther was tough to miss. She has very good lateral quickness, and her hits are memorable. Overall, I thought well of Fort Wayne, who went on the road to face a higher-level opponent and played a solid game. Their squad has a nice foundation, but it will take some additional depth for the ladies from Harry Baals' city to significantly climb in the rankings.

*** Moving on to general impressions of the evening, I will note that the title of this post does not refer solely to my weary body. On a good note, CRG came to the realization that no one could understand the announcers over the Gardens' sound system. Lacking a perfect fix, they opted to give just basic information over the PA, such as who was jamming when a time out was called. This freed Cincy's strong announcing duo of Tank and Caesar to work on the DNN video feed, where (presumably) they didn't come across sounding like Eddie Vedder gargling. Two major things were lacking in the Gardens, however. First, the large overhead scoreboard remained dark, taking away two important aspects of the bout experience. It made the skater introductions far less exciting, while also robbing fans of our only place to see the score of individual jams. Many times, I missed the beginning of the next jam, waiting for the main scoreboard to slowly ascend to the new score and trying to remember the previous totals to calculate the jam score. Second, the crowd was pretty lackluster. While the attendance was somewhere between 2500 and 3000 (a number most leagues would kill for). the fans really didn't get into the act. The boos the generally thunder down as opponents are announced were barely audible. A few brief and sporadic chants arose, only to fizzle quickly. Perhaps it was the rain, or the uneven matchup, or the uninspiring beeramid building skills on display in the floor seating area, but something just didn't click. I'm hoping for a much better atmosphere on April 30, vs. Naptown.

*** Even the skaters seemed to be running on empty after the bout. Almost everyone I talked to seemed upset with her performance or something else. To their credit, everyone was polite to me and signed autographs for waves and waves of children (and a few adults), but most just didn't seem in much of a mood to talk. I got in some quick hellos with a number of CRG skaters, including Hop Devil, Karma, Trauma, Pistol Whippin Wendy, Poppy Chulo, and Nastee. Even though I didn't get to see her skate, perhaps the highlight of my night was getting to spend a few minutes with The Librarian and her husband.

Since I wasn't staying overnight, I didn't even consider stopping by the after-party. It was almost 10:30 by the time I got on the road, and I was struggling. On more than a few occasions, I thought about just pulling off and finding a hotel along the way. Complicating matters was a dense fog that started near Dayton and stretched until roughly Findlay. I probably would have found a hotel, except that I couldn't read any road signs or billboards through the fog. Ultimately, the safest thing to do was to stay on the road and follow the reflectors. After two stops (before Dayton and in Findlay) and 72 oz. of various diet colas, I finally arrived home a bit after 2am.

While I always enjoy attending CRG bouts, I will admit that this experience left me a bit underwhelmed. I know that I wasn't at my best, and I'm sure that colored my view of the night. In sports, everyone has an off night sometimes, and when you don't have your best "stuff," you fight through and make it better next time out. I'm optimistic that the next bout will be much better. I'm looking forward to having a friend at the bout with me, enjoying the after-party, and staying for a Reds game the next day. I'll be ready.