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Sunday, August 5, 2012

One Week

On Saturday, July 21, I made my way to the Windy City Fieldhouse to see the Cincinnati Rollergirls (CRG) take on the Chicago Outfit. I had traveled out to Chicago a week earlier to spend some time with family. It was a lovely and restful week, full of good times and excellent food. I mean, really excellent food. Giordano’s deep dish pizza, Connie’s beef sandwiches and tamales, Eli’s cheesecake, excellent Chinese takeout… uh, where was I? Oh yes, an excellent week in my Sweet Home Chicago, but the timing of the trip was all about the roller derby doubleheader on Saturday evening. So, let’s get on to the night of derby.

I arrived at the Fieldhouse roughly ten minutes before the doors opened, with plans to get a first row seat along the backstretch. I had been to an Outfit home bout before, and I knew that my usual turn three seats were not ideal at this venue. Also, since the seats are not tiered in any way, it’s extremely important to get there early and secure a front row seat. As usual, I settled in to read the bout program. I usually pay only fleeting attention to the warm-ups, making sure I see the skaters I know. This time, however, I was drawn in. As a former athlete, I know that there are so many different approaches to the pregame routine. It’s interesting to see athletes’ personalities peek through in the way they warm-up. I personally had different routines for different sports. In baseball, I was a loner, stretching and doing some minimal throwing, then disappearing to listen to music. For you youngsters, we had this thing called a “Cassette Walkman,” which was excellent for playing “mix tapes.” Side B of every tape I made started with the same song, Vince DiCola’s “War” (from the “Rocky IV” soundtrack). It was always the last song I played, timed to end as close to taking the field as possible. For home games, I’d sprint from the third base dugout to the first base bag, head down. As soon as I stepped on the bag, I would spin and fire the first grounder to my third baseman. If my routine was disturbed, it became really tough for me to focus for the first inning or two. In football and basketball, my approach was different. I was social, joking, enjoying my teammates. I think the primary difference is that I generally didn’t start the game in either of those sports, so I didn’t need that immediate focus. But, each person has his or her own approach.

"I'm ready now."

So, I watched carefully as CRG took its turns around the flat track. The DJ started with some great 80’s music. Many of the skaters sang along, happily dancing on skates. I really noticed Pistolwhippin Wendy having an absolute blast, while other CRG skaters were much more businesslike. I don’t have any grand conclusions to make from watching the warm-ups. I don’t think that either approach necessarily paints an athlete as fun-loving or focused, but I do intend to watch warm-ups more carefully in the future to see if any trends emerge. After introductions and a nice rendition of the Star-Spangled Banner by one of the Windy City Rollers (sorry, didn't get down in my notes who it was), it was time for the action.

DISCLAIMER: I am just a fan and have no official connection to any team or player. While I strive to report accurately, I may cite inaccurate details. This blog chronicles my own experiences, and should not be used as a substitute for actual derby coverage, highbrow literature, sugar, salt, or sleeping pills.

The first game of the evening pitted the visiting CRG Violent Lambs (B-Team) against the homestanding Chicago Outfit Shade Brigade (B-Team). The Shade Brigade eked out a hard-fought victory over Toledo’s Glass City Rollers in my earlier visit to Chicago, and I would consider the Outfit squad an even match for the Lambs in normal circumstances. These, however, were not normal circumstances. The Lambs came to town with a rookie-laden roster, the result of many skaters on both CRG rosters being unavailable for the road game. CRG faced an uphill battle against an opponent that was skilled and far more experienced.

That challenge was apparent from the opening whistle, as Chicago’s Jennergizer Bunny and her pack posted a sparkling 7-0 jam. CRG got an immediate chance to strike back, as Imma Tattooher had a power jam opportunity. While she was able to tie the score at seven, the Lambs pack squandered a chance to make it much better. The CRG blockers failed to trap an Outfit blocker and slow the pack, and also showed a lack of offensive awareness in terms of providing assists. The next momentum shift occurred as the Shade Brigade’s Uma Bomber completely shut down Imma at the back of the pack, issuing multiple take-outs on the Cincy jammer. This cleared the way for another big jam by Jennergizer, and the Outfit led 22-13 after seven minutes.

On the very next jam, the CRG pack avoided calamity, allowing a mere 4-0 to Chicago on a jam that could have been much worse. Pistolwhippin Wendy and Garden of Beatin put up a beautiful 2-wall at the front, while Susie Shinsplintski and Flannery O’Slaughter provided a textbook double-bridge to keep the front blockers in play. CRG were able to cut the deficit to three, as Ruthless Chris did a nice job on a power jam, making some sharp, quick cuts. The Lambs then avoided yet another crushing blow. Imma wore the star, but took an absolutely atrocious track cut, simply walking right back in bounds in front of the foremost blocker, who had knocked her out. The Outfit jammer went to the box soon thereafter, and the jam ended 9-8, in favor of Chicago. Thanks to some excellent 2-walls, first by The Librarian and Godzillary, then by The Librarian and Flannery, CRG kept it close, at one point bringing the game back to within three points.

The game would never be that close again. The CRG pack broke down repeatedly, completely losing track of the Outfit jammer on consecutive jams and allowing untouched scoring passes straight down the middle of the track. The score stood at 66-41 Chicago with nine minutes remaining in the half. The Lambs finally put together a few solid jams. Some nice blocking gave Ruthless Chris a 9-0 result, but when she got a power jam soon thereafter, CRG could only muster a single grand slam, bringing the score to 66-55. In the remaining four minutes of the half, things fell apart completely for Cincinnati. Its packs were shredded, its jammers shut down completely. The Outfit went into halftime on a 15-0 run, leading 81-55, but CRG was lucky that it wasn’t worse.

At the beginning of the second half, it was a different team that struggled, Team Zebra. On the very first jam, Chicago’s Jennergizer blatantly cut CRG’s front blocker. Everyone I have asked since then has confirmed that this infraction results in a major penalty. The official signaled a track cut minor and allowed her to continue skating, but did not make a signal as to her status as lead jammer or not lead jammer. Half a lap later, Jennergizer suddenly became lead jammer. Not only should she have been sitting in the sin bin on a major, the minor penalty that was actually called should have kept her from lead jammer status. The Outfit ended up taking the jam, 4-0. On the ensuing jam, the CRG pack completely fell asleep, allowing an untouched grand slam on the inside, part of a 9-0 jam that left the score 94-55, three minutes into the half.

The Lambs jammers also played a role in the team’s poor performance. I Caramba showed flashes of talent, but her inexperience showed when she waited too long to call a jam on which she was lead jammer, giving the Outfit a 4-3 result. On her next turn with the star, Caramba squandered a beautiful back 3-wall by Wendy, Roxx Solid, and Garden of Beatin, drawing a major and yielding a power jam to Chicago. Just seven minutes into the second half, Chicago led 103-62, tallying a 37-7 run over 11 minutes of play. Pistolwhippin Wendy temporarily stopped the bleeding with a ferocious jammer take-out near the jammer line on an Outfit scoring pass. While it was by no means Wendy’s only big hit of the night, it was certainly the most jaw-dropping. She was sent to the box, but it certainly looked like a phantom call from where I sat.

The Lambs drew on the emotion from Wendy’s crushing block. Roxx Solid, Sista Shovechild, and Poppy Chulo combined to form a sharp pack, and Hot Slice did excellent work jamming, pushing the Chicago front wall out of play and garnering an 8-0 result. Unfortunately, a late call by lead jammer Ruthless Chris (with a 2-3 pack disadvantage) killed the brief burst of momentum, and the Outfit won the jam 3-2. Soon thereafter, Imma continued her rough night, being sent off on a jammer penalty. Chicago’s Ivanna Schoop took the jammer line all alone to begin the next jam and began to accrue points. After serving her time, Imma came back in and was sent back to the box within ten seconds. The Librarian provided a great jammer take-out, but the back-to-back-to-back power jams left the Outfit with a 153-82 edge.

The final 11 minutes of the bout were more of the same. The Lambs looked physically exhausted, mentally beaten, or both. Hot Slice continued to look solid with the star, but CRG’s other jammers had nothing much to offer. By the time the final whistle sounded, the Outfit had a 188-96 margin of victory.

Lambs co-MVP Hot Slice was, by far, CRG’s best jammer. While it wasn’t her best game ever, Slice was solid throughout, playing a good mental game. She showed good speed, and she was the only CRG jammer who worked to push the opposing front walls out of play. This allowed her to take advantage of her opportunities, despite the uneven play of her blockers. Rookie Ruthless Chris showed some excellent talent, with nice bursts of speed and sharp lateral cuts. Unfortunately, she looked lost when she reached the opponent’s front wall, not continuing to skate and push them out of play. She also seemed flummoxed by the tactic of Chicago’s blockers skating backwards after knocking her out of bounds, taking far too long to work back and re-enter. I attribute these errors to inexperience, and I think that Chris has a bright future as her mental game catches up with her physical skills.

The other two primary jammers for CRG struggled mightily. Rookie I Caramba showed some positive flashes but could not put it together. Imma Tattooher couldn’t get anything going, taking too many trips to the box and spending as much time on the floor as she did on her skates. I was shocked that CRG’s coaching staff left her in the jamming rotation well into the second half. Making cameo jamming experiences for the Lambs were Pistolwhippin Wendy, Roxx Solid, Flannery O’Slaughter, Sista Shovechild, Godzillary, the pizza vendor, a couple of NSO’s, and the guy holding a “will work for food” sign at the on-ramp to the Kennedy Expressway.

Turning to the blockers for the Lambs, my other co-MVP is Pistolwhippin Wendy. While The Librarian also had many of the good blocking moments, I gave this one to Wendy on the basis of the energy she brought to the team. Her big hits had an impact on the game, and her positive, aggressive attitude was in short supply among her teammates. Simply put, Wendy looked like she was playing a sport she loved, while much of CRG looked like they had been sentenced to forced manual labor. The Librarian, while not as consistent as she’d like, did a nice job on many occasions with positional blocking and keeping walls together. Susie Shinsplintski had the best performance of her comeback campaign, and Garden of Beatin showed promise in her debut. The remainder of the CRG blockers ranged from inconsistent to subpar.

On the Chicago side, all four of the Outfit’s main jammers were solid, but Jennergizer Bunny set the pace. She’s speedy and smart, often disappearing into the pack, only to emerge virtually untouched. Ivanna Schoop and Big Lebekski weren’t far behind. Graves rounded out the rotation with some effective work. On the blocking side, Uma Bomber was the clear standout.

The back half of the twinbill featured the A-Teams, CRG’s Black Sheep and Chicago Outfit’s Syndicate. The Sheep defeated the Syndicate just weeks earlier at the Brewhaha tournament, and Chicago was looking for payback at home. Much like the Lambs, the Sheep entered this matchup missing some key cogs, most notably Hannah Barbaric and Nuk’em. While Nuk’em had been out with an injury for quite some time, the loss of Hannah was recent, and I wondered how CRG would proceed with its jammer rotation beyond K Lethal and Wheezy. My guess was that Candy Kickass, enjoying her most effective season to date, would step in.

The first minute of the bout was a CRG fan’s dream. Buckhead Betty, Penn Tupanga, and Candy Kickass formed an imposing and cohesive pack, as K Lethal racked up 12 points to nothing for Queefer Sutherland. (Side note: “Queefer” was #5 on the list of top 10 things I never thought I would type on a publicly-viewable blog.) Unfortunately for the Sheep, K was sent off to the box at the tail end of the jam. Sk8r-Kinney, Karma Krash, and Kitten Kicker did a nice job on the penalty kill on the ensuing jam, but the Syndicate’s blockers were up to the task, finding ways to get their jammer through for a 14-0 jam. Wheezy then took her turn with the star, showing magnificent balance as she snuck through the inside for lead jammer. Silkk Assassin went out on a jammer penalty for Chicago, but her pack bailed her out with an exquisite penalty kill, holding Cincy to a mere four points. By the time 13 minutes had passed, CRG were in complete control of the bout, yet led only 30-23.

"It wasn't me, I swear."

A series of uneventful jams followed, with the only action to note a nice forced minor track cut by Candy to deny a Chicago jammer lead status. Then, showing that you don’t have to be a rookie to call a jam too late, lead jammer K Lethal waited long enough to turn a 2-0 jam victory into a 3-2 loss. On her next chance, K got to skate solo, but her blockers didn’t give her much help, and CRG turned in another low-scoring power jam, bringing the Cincinnati lead to 43-31. The events that led to that power jam fall into the category of “things I’ve never seen in roller derby.” Silkk Assassin was handed a major on a really blatant track cut along the backstretch, then proceeded to skate directly through the middle of the infield toward the penalty box. The refs eventually managed to get her turned around, and she skated back across the infield, then around the outside to the box. Strange plays, indeed.

From there, the teams traded shots for a while. The Outfit’s Lola Blow put together a magnificent scoring pass, juking past June With A Cleaver and at least one other CRG blocker for a 4-0 win. Then Cincy’s Ruff’n The Passer, Betty, and Candy did a beautiful job sealing the Outfit blockers to the outside for an easy pass and a 4-0 jam by K. Betty and Candy then combined again with Penn Tupanga to slam the door on Silkk Assassin with an impenetrable 3-wall at the back of the pack, turning a Syndicate advantage into a harmless 0-0 jam. Thanks to some fine blocking by Railroad, K Lethal posted a nice grand slam, and it looked like CRG might finally be able to stretch the lead, up 52-35 with five minutes to play in the half.

The next five minutes, however, completely changed the bout. First, Wheezy took the star to the penalty box on a high block major. Kinney did some excellent work on Queefer, but Chicago managed to do nine points worth of damage. A minute or so later, Lola Blow posted another eye-popping jam, managing to slip by on an outside scoring pass, thanks to her amazing balance. On the final jam of the half, K Lethal took another trip to the sin bin. While Karma, June, and Mirderher did some fine work on the penalty kill, the Outfit finished the half on a 25-0 run to take a 60-52 lead.

The Black Sheep needed to come back from the break and re-establish their rhythm. Unfortunately for the visitors, it was Chicago who found another gear. CRG’s blockers formed a conga line to the penalty box, rarely keeping more than two blockers on the track for the next 12 minutes, and the Chicago lead grew steadily. By the time K went to the box yet again on a track cut, the solid penalty killing by June and Candy was not enough to keep the lead from growing to 30 points, 89-59 with 22 minutes remaining. Things continued to get worse for CRG on the next jam, with Chicago’s Smashley Destructo leading a fine pack in the absolute pummeling of Wheezy. I don’t believe Wheezy ever completed her initial pass, and Queefer rolled to an 18-0 jam. Shortly thereafter, an interminable officials’ time out led to K receiving an ex post facto jammer penalty for no reason I could discern. Chicago took advantage with another solid power jam. Over 19 minutes, the Outfit put together an 84-10 scoring run, and this one was more or less over with 16 minutes to play, Chicago leading 119-62.

Not much of note happened from there. K turned 3-0 into 4-4 with another late jam call, but by that stage, it was hard to blame her for taking the risk. Kinney took a turn jamming, eventually joined by Karma, but both decided to join the parade of CRG jammer penalties. The sole Black Sheep highlight of the game’s waning minutes was a 14-point jam by Candy Kickass in her only appearance with the star. On that jam, Chicago’s Smashley Destructo was called for a major while blocking. She just stayed in the pack as though nothing had happened, and the ref basically said “ah, never mind,” not persisting in sending her off. It was the final sign of a very up-and-down night for the zebras.

While I can’t accuse the Black Sheep of quitting on the bout, they just had no spark for the game’s final 35 minutes. Frankly, it was a terrible game to watch, not just for a CRG fan, but for any roller derby fan. The Outfit prevailed in a laugher, 150-93. The Sheep completely dominated the gameplay over the first 25 minutes, yet squandered countless chances to take a stronger lead. When Chicago turned the tables, Cincinnati had no answer, no energy, no fire, and no chance.

There was plenty of blame to go around. The team’s jamming performance was easily its worst since… well, maybe 2008 vs. Philly? K Lethal was her team’s best option with the star, and when your best option is in the box as often as she was, that’s not a good sign. I really need to come up with some type of autotext to use in every recap. It would be something like “K Lethal was the fastest, strongest, and most talented jammer on the track. Yet, she hurt her team with penalties and poor decision making. If her mental game ever catches up with her physical prowess, you could be looking at an all-time great.” I feel like I’ve been writing the same thing every bout for the past 2-3 years. For the first 10-15 minutes of this bout, I honestly thought things would be different. K was playing a smart game, calling jams at just the right time, and not taking excessive penalties. I could have seen her playing for precision offenses such as Gotham, Denver, or Rose City in that span. Unfortunately, it didn’t last, and it was back to the usual.

Wheezy just did not have it in this game. I would rate it her worst performance since joining the Sheep. She did have a few flashes of Wheezy-esque brilliance, but she was battered consistently, and her speed and explosiveness seemed a couple of ticks below the norm. You may notice that I never mentioned the third jammer for CRG, and that is telling. Penn Tupanga, in a move surprising even to many CRG insiders, was called upon to jam. While her blocking performance in this one was above average, she does not seem to be the answer from the jammer line. Candy Kickass looked great in her single jam, and the CRG coaching staff would be well advised to use her in the third jammer slot until Hannah Barbaric’s return.

Cincinnati’s blocking, at least when the team could muster a pack of more than two, was pretty good. The effort was led by co-MVP’s Buckhead Betty and Candy Kickass. While I would have previously considered this statement sacrilegious, I put forth that Betty has at least tied Kinney as the best blocker in CRG. While Betty has always delivered the big hits and a booty made for jammer frustration, her overall game has taken a giant step forward this year. Her speed is up a notch, her lateral quickness likewise, and her track awareness is superlative. Candy has also reached new heights during this campaign. She seems equally comfortable in jamming and blocking roles, and her blocking has a ferociousness that belies her slender frame. She always seems to be in the right position, a credit to her focus and mental acuity for the game.

June With a Cleaver joined Sk8r-Kinney and Karma Krash among other standouts on the blocking side. June played a very consistent game, doing some of her best work as a positional blocker and as half of some excellent 2-walls. Her penalty killing kept things from getting even more out of hand as the bout went on. Mirderher, Penn Tupanga, and Ruff’n The Passer also stood out for solid blocking performances.

For the Syndicate, Queefer Sutherland and Lola Blow formed an excellent jammer tandem. Sutherland , while not the very fastest nor very strongest jammer I’ve seen, is above average across the board, and her track awareness allows her to use the full measure of her talent in every bout. Lola is a bit more of a blunt instrument, powering her way through tough packs in lieu of the finesse game. Chicago’s other jammer, the previously mentioned Silkk Assassin, is “K Lethal-lite.” She may have the most physical talent of any of the Outfit jammers, but her inconsistency and mental lapses limit her overall effectiveness. On the blocking side, it was all about Smashley Destructo and Lady K. Smashley is a punishing hitter, quick, ferocious, and smart. She has a way of controlling the back of the pack by herself, making her especially valuable when packs get spread out or shrunken by penalties. Lady K is all-around awesome. She’s speedy, smooth, and equally adept at holding walls and measuring up opponents for a dose of pain.

Moving on to my overall impressions of the night, I found the full bout experience below average, albeit with some definite high points. I know that not every league can have a major arena as its venue, but the Windy City Fieldhouse does not provide the feel of a top-level sporting event. The seats are not tiered in any way, meaning that only the foremost of the 4-5 rows that ring three sides of the playing surface provides a decent view. The seats in the turns are set a bit too far back from the track, and seem to be at an odd angle for viewing. The biggest drawback of the venue is certainly the food. There is one stand, with a paltry selection of nasty-looking pizza, nachos, and tasteless soft pretzels. The only plus is the bank of vending machines, which serve up bottled drinks at $1.50 each, less than half the cost of a beverage at most arenas. Unlike at the first bout I attended there this season, the sound system was subpar. I had a difficult time understanding the announcers, although not as bad as the Charlie Brown’s Teacher mumble of the Cincy Gardens.

"Chuck, he said Hot Slice is Lead Jammer."

The best aspect of the bout production was easily the halftime show during the first bout. The Chicago Boyz Acrobatic Team put on a phenomenal show, doing acrobatic tricks involving jump ropes, as well as a wonderful routine with a springboard. The performers, who looked to range from 7 or 8 years of age to late teens, had the crowd spellbound. One did “the worm” over a jump rope, while another bounced on his back to clear it. It was, by far, the best halftime performance I have ever seen at a sporting event of any kind. It was the only time all night that the crowd was really into what was happening on the track, which was unfortunate for the hardworking skaters of the home team. The other item of praise for the Outfit goes to the DJ. He played an excellent mix of mostly 80’s and 90’s favorites, which both the fans and skaters seemed to enjoy. He didn’t get into the obscure hipster crap that many bout DJ’s overuse, and the folks spinning tunes for other leagues should take notes.

A Taste of the awesome Chicago Boyz Acrobatic Team

After the first bout, Betty encouraged me to move over to the turn one seats and join the CRG partisans. I had the pleasure of sitting with CRG rookie Eerie Sistable, set to make her bout debut in the C-Team “hangover game” the following day. We compared notes as we watched, and I really enjoyed the conversation. Unfortunately, due to family commitments, I could not attend that bout. I also got the chance to spend some time with Pistolwhippin Wendy and The Librarian, two of the coolest people you will ever meet in all of derby, during the Sheep bout.

After the skating was finished, I got to catch up with the wonderful Betty outside the venue. She did something that very few skaters do, introducing me to some of her teammates I had not met. This means the world to me, as it is so difficult to approach people I don’t know and chat, especially when they are with all of their friends and teammates. If I could ask one thing of roller derby players everywhere, it would be to make the effort to approach and engage your fans (especially the ones who have traveled to support your team for years).

After leaving the venue, I decided to attend the after-party, held at a bar in the Bucktown neighborhood. The first CRG skater I encountered was Wendy, and I made my way to a table to join her and Mark. Ruff’n also came up, introduced herself, and joined us. We chatted while waiting for the private area to be ready, and that may have been the most enjoyable part of my evening. The bar finally opened a private area for the after-party, and we made our way to a sweltering, dark basement. The music was bad and loud, but worse yet, there was no food available. The bar had closed its kitchen at 11pm, and no provisions were made by the bar or the league to even provide food for the skaters. While I did also get the chance to talk with The Librarian for a while, the party was a total flop in my book.

It’s been four months since I posted here.
For that, I deserve your scorn and derision.
Two weeks since I saw a bout.
To be quite honest, it’s one I could have done without.
Nine days, I’ve been typing this.
I hope it doesn’t take you too long just to read it.
In six days, it’s another trip.
So I’ll finish this up before it gets longer.
You’ll be falling asleep if it gets much longer.
St. Louis Blues defenseman Chris Pronger.