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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

2011 Roller Derby Wrap-Up

The end of the year tends to be a time for reflection, and a time for writers everywhere to haul out the "Best of the Year" list as a handy crutch. While I normally avoid cliches like the plague, I can't pass up the opportunity to post my list here.

2011 was a year of firsts for me in terms of roller derby. I experienced many of the Western teams for the first time, thanks to my early-season trip to the Wild West Showdown. I became a season ticketholder for the Cincinnati Rollergirls (the first time in my life that I have purchased a full season ticket for any team on any sport). I made it to Indy for my first Circle City Derby Girls home bout, and again a few months later for my first trip to North Central Regionals. In addition to all of the "firsts," I made it to two Glass City Rollers home bouts, four CRG home bouts, and CRG's road bout against Steel City. In all, 2011 was easily my most prolific year for roller derby travel.

I decided that it would be very difficult to issue one "best of" list for the year. My experiences with CRG would naturally overshadow those with other leagues, by virtue of volume alone. So, I will go with two lists: "Best of CRG 2011" and "Best of (non-CRG) Roller Derby 2011." All of these awards are based solely on events I attended, so no skaters from Gotham, Oly, RMRG, etc.

MVP Jammer, Black Sheep: Hannah Ouchocinco - Hannah was her usual, steady self in 2011. While she uncorked at least one amazing, Matrix-esque move in each regular-season bout I saw, her consistently heady play and overall skill set earned her the nod. She was easily the least-penalized CRG jammer, and her track awareness made tactical mistakes extremely rare. In sports, many see the term "grinder" as a pejorative, implying a lack of top-level skill. When I call Hannah a grinder, it is with admiration. She is certainly skillful and athletic, but she also gets the most out of her ability by combining it with toughness and smarts.

MVP Jammer, Silent Lambs: Hot Slice - Hop Devil was excellent in her bouts with the Lambs, and Nastee had one amazing game. Neither of them, however, provided the consistent contributions of Hot Slice to her team's jammer corps. Showing good speed and surprising power, Hot Slice was the go-to skater when her team needed a big jam. Her play will certainly continue to improve with more experience, and I see Hot Slice as a candidate to make the jump to the Sheep at some point in 2012.

Most Improved Jammer, CRG: Wheezy - Wheezy had an excellent season in 2011, going from a Lambs/Sheep Tweener to a full-time member of the Sheep jamming rotation. Her skill set improved in every major area, including straight-line speed, agility and balance, power, and track awareness. At times, she was the most effective jammer on her team, finding ways through tough Windy City packs when Hannah and K Lethal were struggling. At regionals, she fought through illness to give her team a lift. In addition to all of this, her personality has made her a true favorite among the crowds at the Gardens.

MVP Blocker, Black Sheep: Sk8r-Kinney - The blocking contingent has always been CRG's greatest strength. A typical pack in 2011 might include standouts such as Karma Krash, Trauma, Buckhead Betty, Nuk'em, and Sk8 Crime. As great as those skaters are, it was an easy choice to select Kinney here. She is the best one-on-one blocker on the team, and one of the two or three best anywhere whom I have had the pleasure to observe. She can hand out a big hit, but her game is more positional in nature. She always seems to be in exactly the right position, and her agility and lateral quickness are superb. If you're a Top Gun fan, consider her Iceman, a model of technical perfection who wears down the opponent until her prey gives up or makes a mistake. Had she not already made her claim to the award, her one-woman pack at regionals would have put her over the top.

MVP Blocker, Silent Lambs: Kitten Kicker - This was one of my toughest decisions. I strongly considered Barracuda, Bex Pistol, Cherry Choke, Killian Destroy, and Pistolwhippin' Wendy as well. Although Kitten Kicker (as well as others on my list) did spend some time with the Black Sheep, I considered her primarily a Lamb. Kitten Kicker used her lanky frame, smooth lateral movement, and pack awareness to contribute strong efforts throughout the season. The final tiebreak for me was consistency. While I never selected her as a bout MVP, I also never saw her have a subpar game, and that means a lot over the course of a season.

Most Improved Blocker, CRG: Maime - In previous seasons, Maime was often one stride too late to make an effective block. 2011, however, saw her improve in both the mental and physical aspects of the game to become a very effective blocker. First, her lateral quickness was vastly improved. She looked stronger and faster in all aspects of the game. Equally important, her track savvy took a giant leap forward. Her positioning was significantly better, which allowed her to cut the space she had to cover to make a block. Maime's hard work was rewarded with a promotion to the Black Sheep for the North Central Playoffs. While she didn't see much track time in Indy, it was clear that she could hold her own against the top-level talent on display.

Rookie of the Year, CRG: Hot Slice - See above.

Fans of the Year: The CRG Beeramid Crew - Their outstanding aluminum creations wowed skaters and spectators alike (and annoyed some of the grumpier opponents). One of the highlights of attending a bout at the Gardens is watching the beeramid grow.

Best Bout / Best Moment of the Year, CRG: Silent Lambs vs. Detroit B (Final home bout) - As regular readers know, I am an unabashed fan of B Team Derby. I love watching the hard working, underappreciated skaters get their moments in the sun. The Silent Lambs were in great form against Detroit. The blocking was a magnificent show of teamwork, as both teams' blockers worked in tandem to close holes and recycle jammers. The low-scoring, back-and-forth contest stood tied at 66 with less than a minute remaining in regulation. Hot Slice stepped to the jammer line, and the CRG pack did a great job, harassing the opposing jammer into taking the star to the penalty box. Hot Slice achieved lead jammer status, picked up two points, and put her hands to her hips as she skidded out of bounds near turn one, capping the CRG victory. While the action was great, I enjoyed the atmosphere in the game's closing minutes even more. It had been a tense and physical bout, and it was easy to see that there was some bad blood building on the track. The fans, as they all-too-rarely do during B Team bouts, took over the building. The noise and cheers were amazing. When the game ended, the fans erupted as the victorious Lambs mobbed each other. It's no secret that Miss Print has been one of my very favorite skaters since I saw my first bout in 2007. I described in an earlier post the sad details of my own "retirement" from competitive sports, and as I thought of Miss Print in her last bout, my eyes welled up a bit. She joined John Elway and Michael Jordan (his first two retirements, at least) in walking off the stage in glory and adulation. As much as I love the Black Sheep, the night would have been complete for me whether they later won by 100 or lost by 100.

Best Jammer: Heather Juska (Denver) - I saw Juska and her team at the Wild West Showdown early in the season, and I came away very impressed. Wearing the star, she is equal parts crafty and explosive, wearing out opposing blockers with her unrelenting attacks. Her slender frame belies her toughness, and I was not at all surprised to see her take a prominent role with Team USA in the World Cup. (Honorable Mentions: Soulfearic Acid of Rose City, Maiden America of Naptown, Downtown Dallis of Arch Rival)

Best Jammer, Non-Playoff Team: On'Da Sligh (Slaughter County) - On'Da Sligh was another revelation from my trip to the Pacific Northwest. She was by far the best skater on the track in each game her team played, showing off speed and some dazzling moves. Her 360-degree spins in pack traffic were some of the best jammer jukes I've ever witnessed. I would love to see her play against higher-level competition, as I certainly think she could handle the step up. (Honorable Mentions: Roll-R-Damage of Circle City, Cosmo Disco of Des Moines)

Best Blocker: Jackie Daniels (Windy City) - Since I didn't do a "double threat" category, Jackie Daniels is placed here (by virtue of blocking more often than jamming in the Windy City bouts I saw). Ever since her days in Grand Rapids, Jackie has shown toughness, quickness, and smarts. All of those traits and more were on display in her trip to Cincinnati and her action in the NC Playoffs. Much more on her later. (Honorable Mentions: Gabrielle Begeman of Denver, Bork Bork Bork of Windy City, Smack Ya Sideways of Rose City)

Best Blocker, Non-Playoff Team: Megger Bomb (Des Moines) - When I saw Megger Bomb play against Circle City in Indy, it took me back to my first ever derby bout, and a big, fast blocker named Juwana Hurt. Megger Bomb combines intimidating size (and the punishing hits that follow) with nimble footwork, good straight-line speed, and precision positioning. She is a spirit-killing blocker, laying hit after hit on a jammer until the jammer's legs are rubber and her speed is sapped. (Honorable Mentions: Faye Stunaway of Circle City, Astro Glide of Bellingham)

Best Bout / Best Moment of the Year: North Central Region Semifinals, Windy City vs. Naptown - Windy City was in danger of losing to a NC Region opponent for the first time ever, as Naptown was putting on a sharp and furious display in front of the hometown crowd. Since there is no way I can tell it any better, I will defer to Justice Feelgood Marshall's (Windy City Bench Coach and DNN Poobah) description of the events.

Jackie Daniels goes out to jam the next one and it's totally going our way; Yvette, Bork, Sarge and Hoosier are all over the Naptown jammer. Jackie gets lead and a full 5 points on her first lap. Scoreboard updates to Naptown 87, Windy City 81. Our blockers continue to work the Naptown jammer; she is still stuck in the pack and in danger of getting lapped again. Jackie is ripping up the track now, coming for a second scoring pass; she knows she can get the lead back if this jam keeps going well.

Except it stops going well, because as she enters the pack at pretty close to her top speed, she tries to go around a nearly stopped Sarge to the right, just as Sarge moves to the right. Sarge is what the military would classify as a hard target. Physics happen and Jackie goes from like 60 to 0 in an instant, hitting the floor on her back super hard. Everybody in the room goes "OOOOH" at the same time. As any derby player knows, the collisions you don't expect -- the ones you're not braced for -- are the ones that fuck you up.

So Jackie's on the ground. Doesn't move for a couple seconds but it feels like ten. Her jam ref is standing over her and looks like he's about to call the jam on injury. Sarge is also obviously concerned. I'm sure Jackie's got to be relatively seriously hurt, because otherwise she'd call it off, right?

But no. Jackie slowly rolls over, slowly gets up, and keeps fucking going. Amazingly. She is really interested in that scoring pass. She's slower than she was before and obviously in some pain, but she's also Jackie. She gets the 4 points and calls it off at 9-0.

When Jackie gets back to the bench, our lineup manager Angel Dustt and I immediately check to see if she's ok. She's gasping and holding her chest and can hardly talk; she sits down heavily in the back row of seats and unbuckles her chin strap.

Angel says something to her right then, something along the lines of "Nice jam" or "Are you trying to kill yourself?" I do remember exactly what Jackie says back to her in between ragged breaths: "I wanna win. I wanna win."

I'm trying to come up with the right adjective to describe to you exactly *how* she said it, because it is hard to accurately convey how affecting those words were to me, at that moment. She didn't say it very loudly or emphatically -- partially because she wasn't exactly breathing correctly -- but with this quiet intensity and passion that left no doubt of how badly she wanted it and how pain and fatigue were basically irrelevant considerations.

I have a great deal of respect for anybody willing to put themselves out there and play derby, but I don't think I've ever felt respect for pure competitive spirit in my life as strongly as I did at that moment. Quite a few times in the past couple of days I have gotten literally choked up thinking about it. I don't really do "choked up." This was a considerable exception.

'Course that's not really the end of the story; we were still behind 87-85, but Beth Amp got 2-0 to tie it next and it was a new game again. Later in the game Hoosier Mama saved the day as our only blocker out on the floor during a powerjam for Naptown, managing to keep their jammer dead slow, out of bounds or on the floor for most of it.

Jackie herself got the lead back late with a huge 19-0 in the last five minutes, and jammed the last two frames as well. That second half was full of serious heroics up and down our roster. But when I think of this tournament and that game, I know I am always going to remember that image of Jackie Daniels on the bench, barely able to breathe, eyes on the next jam, saying "I wanna win. I wanna win." and ready to go right back out there again.

Now, I was not privy to the conversation on Windy's bench, but Jackie's actions on the track were one of the best sports moments (not just derby moments) that I have ever experienced. First, the collision. I have been blindsided by 330-pound D-1 College prospects on crackback blocks. I once initiated a collision with a catcher that resulted in a separated shoulder (me), a broken jaw (him), a broken collarbone (him), and a three-game suspension (me). But I can assure you that I have never been a part of a collision like this. Had she merely left the track under her own power, it would have been amazing. Instead, she dragged herself through the pack for four more points in an extremely tight contest. She then proceeded to be the closer in her team's victory.

Folks, this was Michael Jordan fighting through the flu to put up 38 in the NBA Finals. This was Byron Leftwich completing passes despite needing his linemen to carry him down the field between plays. This was Duncan Keith returning from the locker room two shifts after losing seven teeth to get the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Finals. If you were there in Indy, you witnessed greatness.

Best Afterparty: Circle City Derby Girls - I am not usually a fan of karaoke, but the ladies from Indy made it work. It was a fun atmosphere, and the skaters (gasp!) actually took time to mingle with fans, instead of staying in little cliques. (Honorable Mention: Steel City, for the excellent DJ and great party music)

There you have it. 2011 was a great year for me as a nomadic derby fan, and I'll close with my 2012 Derby Resolutions:

1. Attend at least two high-level regular season and/or playoff tournaments.
2. Attend at least four CRG home bouts
3. Attend at least one CRG road bout
4. Attend at least one Circle City home bout
5. Attend at least two Glass City Rollers home bouts
6. Attend at least two home (interleague) bouts of other WFTDA leagues
7. Attend at least two home (interleague) bouts of other non-WFTDA leagues
8. Attend at least one banked-track bout
9. Purchase Dragon speech recognition software, and
10. Use it to actually complete recaps of at least 80% of the bouts I attend.

Friday, December 2, 2011

I Didn't Mean to Turn You On

Well, since I have lately been an abysmal failure at posting recaps, I thought I'd try something different today. Instead of frustrating myself by being unable to push through an eight-hour or more writing project, I'm just going to give some quick thoughts on a couple of current issues in roller derby. I have a feeling that some of the things I have to say here will upset some people, but it's not like I've never been widely reviled before. (I was in school to become a lawyer, after all.)

(Best John McLaughlin voice) Issue One: What to make of the "20 Derby Girls to turn you on" and "20 Roller Derby Girls who will turn you on to the Sport" articles?

First, let me be very clear that the original (now deleted) post was an absolute piece of crap. It was merely a bunch of photos (unattributed ones at that) pulled from random places and accompanied by banal and pathetic captions. I'm not sure how widespread the site's viewership is, but I hope it is minimal. I doubt that I've said anything controversial thus far.

Now, here's where I may get some disagreement. I am not opposed to the purported aim of that post, but merely to the execution. It's time for me to come out of the closet and proudly be who I truly am. I have been a devoted fan of roller derby since I first saw a bout, and I am truly drawn to the athleticism and strategy involved. But you already knew that. You can't understand the full measure of my love for the sport, however, without one additional revelation: I like women. I mean, really, really like women. I like attractive women more than I do baseball, football, roller derby, and Murray Head's "One Night in Bangkok." I am pretty sure that I like them slightly more than I do water and air. I'm fairly certain that I was born this way.

It should not be surprising, then, to observe that most of my favorite skaters are not only very talented, but also very easy on the eyes. I admit that I have a mental ranking of the hottest skaters on some of my favorite teams (Cincy, Circle City, Windy, Denver, etc.). I don't believe in the slightest that highlighting the physical attractiveness of the athletes detracts from the public taking the sport seriously. In fact, I believe that it is a legitimate avenue to bring a more widespread fan base to the sport. After all, thousands of women drooling over Tom Brady have not managed to tarnish the NFL. Women who come to the ballpark to see David Wright or sit at the Jake in the "Grady's Ladies" section have grown to be true and more knowledgeable baseball fans.

It seems that roller derby has a split personality when it comes to this issue. The same folks who cheer the inclusion of a naked Suzy Hotrod in ESPN's magazine get offended when others "marginalize" the sport by paying attention to the "sex(y) sells" angle. There is a reason that old-school roller derby types referred to nice breasts as "tickets." As long as the fans who come to ogle are treated to a great athletic competition, the sport comes out ahead. I will never claim to be an expert on "empowerment" or women's issues in general, but I do not understand why anyone is offended to be thought attractive. Maybe it's just that I'm not much to look at, but I would be more than happy to be eyed amorously once in a while. So, I think that a well done "20 Sexiest Derby Girls" article in a mainstream publication or website would be a plus.

Enter the "Derby Deeds" website, which quickly moved to right the situation by providing a list of 20 skaters who would turn someone on to the sport of roller derby. Again, I found the intention better than the execution. First and foremost, is there a single person reading that website who is not already into roller derby? Beyond that, however, I do have some issues with the list. First, allow me to give due credit. The writers highlighted some excellent and underrated skaters (Begeman, Mouse, Four Closer, etc.). Also, many of the skaters shown were of the "clean-cut" variety. Here's where I get into trouble again, but I am not a fan of extensive tattoos, especially on women. I am fine with every person's right to self-expression and body decoration, but it just does nothing for me to see large, garish tattoos covering every surface. Disregarding for a moment my earlier point that non-derby fans (or future derby fans, as I like to think of them) don't read Derby Deeds, these are the images of the sport that will appeal to a wider, more mainstream audience. I have no problems rooting for the less traditional-looking athlete, in any sport, nor in appreciating their talents. Except for the NBA's collection of thugs, though, every major sport's most popular and marketable athletes are the clean-cut types. You don't see Aaron Rodgers, Derek Jeter, or Sidney Crosby sporting the tattoo sleeves and multiple visible piercings.

Since my praise for Derby Deeds devolved into a rant, there are a few more problems with the list. First, it's extremely LA-centric. Seriously, three different LA Derby Dolls, and another from Angel City? Add in the other California teams, and they're nearing half of the entire list. Also, some of the skaters were profiled by those who have rarely seen them skate. Would it be too much to solicit testimonials from more knowledgeable sources? The guy who wrote K Lethal's blurb has seen her once? While I certainly agree that she is immensely talented and aggressive, I had to laugh when he claimed that one of her great strengths was avoiding fouls. K Lethal does many things extremely well, but avoiding the box while wearing the star is not one of them. The inclusion of skaters in face paint also detracts from the list. What serious, mainstream sport features top athletes in full-face white paint? Finally, I know that any finite list will omit many great skaters, but no list of the top 20 anything in roller derby is complete without Jackie Daniels. If anyone saw her performance at NC Regionals this year and didn't come away a derby fan, I have no hope for that person's soul.

Issue Two: Pros and cons of the World Cup.

Many of my points are in response to those made by "Commissioner" Jerry Seltzer and commenters on his blog, so you might want to look at that here first. I have not had the chance to watch any of the action thus far, but there have been complaints that the venue is not "World Cup" caliber. I have not personally seen it. I agree that if at all possible, tournaments of this magnitude should be held in excellent arenas. The current realities of the sport, however, mean that such opportunities will not always exist. Simply look at the sites for some of the 2012 WFTDA Playoffs. The North Central Region will bout in Chicago? Indy? Cincinnati? Milwaukee? Cleveland? St. Louis? No, try the sporting mecca of Niagara Falls, more than 250 miles from the nearest team that made the 2011 NC field. Of course, I'd love to see the World Cup played in Chicago, Seattle, or another city with a top roller derby venue. But, I'd rather the skaters have this opportunity in a subpar arena than nowhere at all.

One major problem is the competitiveness of the matchups. When Team USA's Heather Juska posted about the World Cup groupings, I stated that I would take the USA minus 300 points against either of its two competitors. The team's first bout resulted in a 377-8 drubbing of New Zealand. The closest bout of day one was an 83-point victory by Australia over Germany. My patriotic fervor aside, it's very difficult to get excited about a tournament in which every single contest is a blowout. I admit that I don't have the answer to this problem. The Commish proposed a system in which the top six seeds compete for three of the four semifinal positions and the bottom seven seeds compete for the final berth. While that would provide at least some decent early-round matchups, I'd be very upset to be on the fourth-best team and miss making the semis in favor of a team that may be nowhere near the same quality. Aside from the gap between the USA and the rest of the field, I think the differences will narrow over the next few years. I'd be in favor of another World Cup in four years. In the meantime, I'd love to see an annual four-team All-Star round robin in December among the top skaters in each WFTDA region.

Now, for a few "quick hits." A commenter doesn't think the organizers of the tournament should be allowed to call it the "World Cup," instead reserving that title for the soccer and rugby versions. Another thinks the event is diminished because Japan was excluded over compliance issues. First, I have a major problem with an organization as riddled with corruption as FIFA getting to declare the world champion of anything. Second, I believe that any tournament whose champion can legitimately make a claim to the title of best team in the world in its sport can rightfully be called the World Championhip. People take baseball, football, and other US-based sports to task for bestowing the title of "world champions." Can anyone legitimately argue that the best football (in the American sense of the word) team in any other country could beat the worst team in the NFL? Could even the national teams of Japan or Cuba beat the Yankees, Rangers, or Cardinals in a best-of-seven? No and no. Since no non-participating nation has a team that could rival the eventual champion USA, I have no problem with this being a "World Cup." As for the Japan argument, international competitions have rules and standards. If a country fails to comply, be it this event, the Olympics, or anything in between, that team should not be allowed to participate.

Well, that was a bit longer than expected, but it was nice to break through the writer's block. I hope that I haven't offended too many. I also hope that you all love me for my mind and my writing, but I wouldn't quibble if the ladies wanted to see me as a sex object as well.