After a couple of brief stops and a so-so lunch at Panera, we were on the road by 2:30. The ride down was a melange of catching up, discussing the new WFTDA rules, and listening to college basketball. We pulled into the Gardens parking lot at the perfect time, roughly 5:30. Even though PR maven Miss Print had set aside a place for us in my favorite section, I still like to be in line when the door opens. I get anywhere from 3-5 chances per year to see CRG bouts in Cincy, and every opportunity seems to pass quickly, fading into a long drive home or a short drive to a so-so afterparty. With my inability to drive, I worried that this might be my only visit this season. Every minute in that arena with those rollergirls was precious.
Andy deftly wheeled me down what seemed like a sheer cliff face out of the parking lot and we located the ramp to make our way in. It may be cliche, but I never took the time to think much about the challenges faced by those in wheelchairs. For the past two months, I have been acutely aware of every crack in the sidewalk and tight parking space. Had I somehow made it to Cincy on my own, I would have had a very difficult time getting to and into the building. After squeezing through the door, we stopped at the Will Call booth, acquiring Andy's ticket and a slick little card that identified me as a season ticket holder.
From the moment I rolled in the door, my eyes searched the hallway for the rollergirls who so often cruised through or stopped to hand out programs. I had a mental list of people I wanted to see, and it was a long one. As we made our way into line, my disappointment grew. Not a CRG soul to be found. Finally, a vision approached one of the ticket windows. Wheezy! I made my way over and received a warm and enthusiastic greeting, handing off my delivery to her. It was finally Opening Day.
After one failed attempt to get to the floor seats (wide wheelchair, narrow aisle), we made our way to my beloved row one, turn three seats. Spots on the floor were left open, reserved for us, and I settled into place. Sitting there, with my notebook out, my program open, and Violent Lambs circling for warm-ups, I was home. My heart was pounding, and I was unable to avoid a bit of chair dancing. Then, one of my favorite parts of the evening: many of the CRG ladies stopped by to chat. Forgive me if I forget to mention anyone, as the night was a blur of euphoria. During the warm-ups, I got to see longtime favorites such as Pistol Whippin Wendy, Miss Print, Buckhead Betty, Bombtrack, and Maime. Also stopping by for enjoyable chats were Mirderher, Sista Shovechild, Big Ugly, Ruthless Chris, Cincy Psych-o, Polly Rocket, and even a very nice ref who hailed from 15 minutes away from my hometown. (Yes, I know said zebra's name, but I'm not sure if there's some kind of problem with refs fraternizing with fans before the bout.) Men's derby player Grimace of the Cincinnati Battering Rams came by to talk about the testosterone-y side of the sport and very kindly gave me some Rams swag. Of course, the great and wise RDF Earl stopped by. Seeing a fellow Toledoan there was a special treat as well. Superstar NSO Screama Donna had also made the jaunt down I-75 for the bout.
Eat your heart out, Mr. Kot-ter. These are no sweathogs.
The time for warm-ups passed far too quickly, and it was time for the B-Team game's player introductions. I am an unapologetic B-Team derby fan, and I was screaming for every Violent Lambs skater with a fervor usually reserved for my few absolute favorites. As always, the opening night crowd was a good one, and they were in full voice as well. Just in case things weren't already off to an amazing start, four-man a cappella group The Mistics sang the Star-Spangled Banner so well that it would make Francis Scott Key shed a tear. I choked up a bit upon realizing that it was the first time in my memory that I had not stood for the anthem at a sporting event. That momentary dose of reality quickly faded as ten skaters took their places within 4 1/2 inches of the jammer line to start the first bout.
STANDARD DISCLAIMER: The following recap is one fan's view of the bouts. All facts and numbers guaranteed to be accurate, or your money back.
The ravings of a madman (My rough notes from the Violent Lambs bout)
CRG VIOLENT LAMBS vs. NEO ROLLER DERBY (Akron, OH) AUDIO ASSAULT
The Lambs roster had a very new look for the home opener. Five skaters (Big Ugly, Cincy Psych-o, I Caramba, La Bruja, and Ruthless Chris) were making their home debut. The roster also featured some skaters (Bombtrack, Cherry Choke, Mirderher) who have recently put in time with the Black Sheep. One of my original favorites from my first ever CRG bout in 2007, Juwana Hurt, made her return to the Gardens as well. Some Lambs stalwarts from past seasons were not skating, due to injury (The Librarian, Hot Slice, Maime) or retirement (Polly Rocket). By contrast, NEO's B-Team was made up of a mere ten skaters, some of whom were playing in their first ever bout. On paper, this did not look like much of a game.
My initial instincts were quickly proven wrong. From the first few jams, it was clear that this would be a complete dismantling, not a game at all. One the game's first jam, CRG's Railroad, Mirderher, Poppy Chulo, and Cherry Choke formed a smothering pack as jammer Ruthless Chris flew by for three grand slams. After Bombtrack showed some nifty moves to gain lead jammer and post a 4-0, Sista Shovechild got into the act. She wore the star and waltzed right through the middle of the pack, thanks to a giant hole opened by Lambs blockers Big Ugly, La Bruja, and Mirderher. On the very next jam, Pistol Whippin Wendy put a beautiful hit on NEO jammer Lita Rabbit, springing Ruthless Chris for lead jammer status. When Lita subsequently went to the box, Chris posted a 29-point jam. With just seven minutes elapsed, CRG held a 58-1 lead. The bout would never be that close again.
The drubbing continued, thanks to textbook CRG pack play, huge jammer take-outs by (among others) Roxx Solid, Mirderher, and Juwana Hurt, and NEO's inability to even hinder CRG's jammers. NEO were able to capitalize on two jammer penalties by Bombtrack, posting twin 9-0 jams a few minutes apart, but even these left the margin at 124-25 just beyond the halfway point of the period. With Bombtrack waiting to emerge from the sin bin, some punishing pack work by Cherry Choke, Cincy Psych-o, La Bruja, and Railroad shut down the remainder of the NEO power jam. Bombtrack came out of the box and quickly took lead jammer and a 29-0 jam win, showing a gorgeous dart down the inside during one of her copious scoring passes. This was the first of three consecutive CRG jams of 15-0 or better, as Wendy put up 20 and Chris added another 15, bringing the score to 188-25 with a few minutes left in the first half.
CRG's I Caramba jumped in for a nice 4-0 jam before NEO took its only even-strength jam win of the half, a meager 2-0 for Lita Rabbit. In the final jam of the period, pivot Wendy was the leader of a soul-crushing CRG pack that gave Chris an 18-4 tally. The whistle left the score at CRG 215, NEO 31 and brought a 10-minute halftime respite from the carnage.
The second half was more of the same. The first jam was a 25-0 for Chris, thanks to a track cut by NEO jammer Honky Tonk Hellion. As the period progressed, the CRG jammer rotation came to include just about everyone. No matter who wore the star, the Cincinnati pack dominated. After Cherry Choke took the star to the box on a track cut, her pack of Poppy Chulo, Roxx Solid, Railroad, and Pistol Whippin Wendy shut things down, holding the NEO power jam completely scoreless. After that jam and I Caramba's 24-0, CRG led 274-35 with over 20 minutes still on the clock. Nearly all of the NEO skaters looked exhausted and deflated. A short roster, huge deficit, and extremely physical play by CRG combined to completely kill NEO's spirits.
An outstanding CRG pack of Big Ugly, Bombtrack, Sista Shovechild, and Cincy Psych-o forced Honky Tonk Hellion into another track cut, and Wendy posted another big number, simply pummeling NEO's front blocker on her way. Mirderher joined the jamming parade with a 9-4 win, and Juwana Hurt took the star next. Showing that she still has the speed and moves, Juwana added 28 points, pushing the margin above 300. One of the night's most memorable moments happened on that very jam. CRG blocker Pistol Whippin Wendy was called for a penalty on the backstretch. In a move that would make the Cobra Kai proud, she decided to "sweep the leg" of the growing beer-a-mid on her way to the box. The fans erupted for the umpteenth time, and Wendy once again displayed the spark that makes her one of CRG's emotional leaders.
Over the final minutes of the bout, La Bruja, Roxx Solid, and Railroad took their turns on the jammer line. NEO were able to scrape together a few points, scoring 28 of their 71 in the game's final ten minutes. With the clock winding down, the 3,500 CRG fans had one final treat coming. Big Ugly became the 12th different CRG skater to wear the star. With the margin nearing 350 points, she skated as if it were a tie game, showing excellent speed and unsurpassed ferocity. The scoreboard rolled up and the clock ticked down, but Big Ugly was not finished. She threw in a little jammer-on-jammer action to make her point. In the game's final moments, she approached the pack once more. A stray NEO blocker lingered on the outside, behind the pack as it left turn three. Not content to merely skate by, Big Ugly went directly for her, punctuating the victory with a final, annihilating hit. A new derby crush was born, and CRG finished the game on the good side of a 423-71 score.
So now comes the difficult part for me. Short of awarding the Lambs MVP to the badly overmatched NEO team, how do I narrow down the field of contenders? I typically rate CRG skaters on a scale of minus-three to plus-three for each bout. While the caliber of opponent doubtlessly made CRG's players look better, this was the first time ever that I rated every single one in plus territory. In fact, only three of the 14 got a plus-one, and five received a plus-three. The plus-threes were Mirderher, Railroad, Big Ugly, Ruthless Chris, and my MVP, Pistol Whippin Wendy. Wendy was simply in control of all facets of the bout. As a jammer, she piled up her share of double-digit jams, showing some nice speed as a complement to her power game. As a blocker, especially when wearing the pivot stripe, she made it look easy. Her packs set up impenetrable walls, sturdy bridges, and beautiful cascading waterfalls. They trapped goats. Sorry, I don't have any goat-trapping adverbs. They mastered speed control, looking equally adept at fast, slow, and stop. Of course, Wendy was excellent as an individual blocker as well. She always dishes out some of the game's most powerful hits, and in this game she added some skillful one-on-one positional blocks at the front of the pack. I tend to hesitate to award MVP to my personal favorite skaters, worrying about bias, but I came to the same conclusion every time I read my notes.
Chatting with Cincy Psych-o and MVP Pistol Whippin Wendy. Big Ugly eats her cookie cake approvingly.
I usually split the next few paragraphs into jammers and blockers, but in this bout, nearly everyone did both. So, I'll just start with my plus-three ratings. Mirderher has been an effective blocker for the Black Sheep, so it was no surprise to see her dominate NEO here. Mostly occupying the middle of the pack, skaters such as Mirderher often get overlooked. In this case, no one could miss her bone-jarring hits. In many cases, NEO jammers never got to see the CRG pivots, thanks to the play of Mirderher and other middle and back-of-the-pack blockers. Railroad's game continues to evolve. At one time, she was a loose cannon, but the more I see her skate these days, the more impressed I am with her grasp of positioning. Sure, she lays the lumber every time out, but limiting her mistakes has made Railroad a very effective and complete blocker.
Big Ugly has stepped to the forefront of the Lambs blocking corps very quickly. Her overall athleticism is outstanding. Many tall players have penalty troubles, as they don't get low enough to consistently deliver legal hits. Big Ugly avoids this problem with excellent body control, and seeing her in her one turn as a jammer will convince any viewer that she has speed to burn. Of course, the most obvious part of her game is her ability to plant a shoulder into an opponent. She also seems to have a good head for strategy and positioning. Ruthless Chris did her damage from the jammer line. I mean, from behind the jammer line, rather than inches in front of it. While I didn't try to tally the stats, I would be shocked if she did not easily lead her team in scoring. She has been fast from the start, but she added so much more in this bout. We saw Chris pushing the front blockers out of play, where she once passively skated behind them. She displayed a few neat jukes, and absorbed the rare NEO hits with excellent balance.
Bombtrack picked up a couple of jammer penalties, but she was very sharp otherwise. She is a very versatile player, good with the star and excellent without. Along with Pistol Whippin Wendy, she leads the team in being down with HPP (hits per pound). Sista Shovechild was also solid as a double threat, in addition to keeping her crown as best in-game dancer. Cherry Choke continues to show the consistency of an atomic clock. Cincy Psych-o showed excellent awareness and an affinity for standing up jammers with a shoulder to the sternum. True rookie La Bruja was a bit inconsistent, but showed impressive power and skating skills overall, in addition to apparently putting a curse on the entire NEO squad. Roxx Solid's performance was eponymous. Poppy Chulo joined Wendy with some excellent pivot work. Juwana Hurt was much as I remember, fast and powerful. I Caramba pitched in with a couple of nice jams and showed great promise as a pack player. And yes, this is the first time I remember feeling a need to say something about every single player on the roster. Whew.
This is usually the point at which I say nice things about some of the opposing players. So, um, I'm sure that they are all friendly folks who do good work in their community.
Between games, the juniors played a scrimmage. While I do enjoy watching the youngsters play, I must admit that I mostly missed the action this time. I was chatting with Andy and enjoying visits with more of my CRG friends (more on that later). After the first bout, I was in need of a cough drop to keep my yelling voice intact. Thankfully, I thought ahead and had a few on hand. I know that my long-time CRG friends would be shocked that I would plan so obsessively. When the teams for the headline bout were announced, the crowd reverted to its frenzied state. The excitement built as each Black Sheep player emerged, until a crescendo greeted the Cincinnati Gardens return of Sadistic Sadie.
CRG BLACK SHEEP vs. NEO ROCK 'N' ROLLER GIRLS
The Black Sheep were in desperate need of a win, after starting 0-2 on the season, including a tough three-point loss to lower-ranked Bleeding Heartland. This game, against lightly regarded NEO, offered a good opportunity. A strong start would be vital for CRG, as a close game down the stretch would place the pressure squarely upon them. A loss in this bout would almost certainly push CRG into the "Division 2" area of the new WFTDA rankings.
In a move that signaled her 2012 ascendancy to the top of CRG's jammer rotation, Wheezy stepped onto the track for the first jam. Ruff'n the Passer, Candy Kickass, and Penn Tupanga did some nice work on NEO's Hummuscide, giving Wheezy the first three points of the game. K Lethal took the star next. Despite yielding lead jammer status to Akron's Twin Pistol, K ended up the lone jammer on the track soon thereafter. Some nice stopped pack action (oxymoron, in this fan's eyes) and a beautiful tiptoe down the boundary by K to avoid a cut gave CRG another 22 to NEO's 4. Not wanting to be left out of the Sweet Move Club, Wheezy came back out the next time with a quick, smooth juke, on the way to a 4-0 jam win.
After Buckhead Betty popped NEO's Holley Car Brader to limit her to a 3-0, CRG really poured it on. Wheezy continued her hot start by knocking down both halves of NEO's front two-wall on her first scoring pass. She ended up with an 18-0 jam, thanks in part to a wicked and cohesive pack (Karma Krash, Kitten Kicker, Ruff'n the Passer, and Nuk'em). CRG had its hot start and a 47-7 lead.
NEO had a chance to seize momentum, as K Lethal's early struggles continued. This time, she had a chance to call the jam ahead 3-0, but ended up barely salvaging a 4-4 jam. Then, NEO's Holley showed a great burst of strength, plowing through Sadistic Sadie's chest for lead jammer and a 3-0 jam. Unfortunately for NEO, CRG took control for the next 15 minutes. K Lethal started it off, riding her excellent speed and the great pack work of Penn Tupanga, Ruff'n, and June with a Cleaver to a sweet 16-0 outing. CRG's #21 looked more like "June with a Sledgehammer," pounding the opposing jammer along the backstretch. Sadistic Sadie jumped into the jammer rotation nicely, followed by another solid round of Wheezy and K. After a magnificent pack of Betty, Sadie, Karma, and Kitten paved the way for a 20-4 in Wheezy's favor, the score stood at 126-18, with a little over three minutes to go in the period. The Black Sheep capped a 74-4 run.
Over the final few minutes of the half, NEO again showed some life. As any zoologist will tell you, the natural enemy of the black sheep is the zebra. CRG's penalty-depleted pack gave up a 14-0 jam to NEO's Holley. Ruff'n the Passer stemmed the tide by doing a whale of job playing one-on-one defense against NEO jammer Hummuscide. Ruff'n sent her to the ground, then forced a penalty against the Akron skater, giving Wheezy a solo start to the next jam. Unfortunately, Wheezy missed the chance to put the game away, going to the box herself on a track cut. NEO did a nice job on the power jam, turning Kitten into a goat and posting a 15-5 score. A couple of jams later, Wheezy capped the half with the grace of a swan, gliding through turn three on one foot to gain lead jammer status and a 4-0 win. The halftime score stood at 142-47, in favor of CRG.
The second half got off to a physical start. NEO's Finnish Her stood Sadie straight up with a solid shoulder, but Sadie came back later in the jam to show that she's got the moves like [former CRG blocker Nik] Jagger, flattening Akron's Teeny Houdini. In the very next jam, a great quartet of CRG blockers (Sailor Scary, Candy Kickass, Penn Tupanga, and Hannah Barbaric) repeatedly pounded on Holley Car Brader, never letting her see the front of the pack until Wheezy was well on her way to a 16-0 jam. For the next few jams, ample trash talking from both team added a bit of extra spark to the action. Bookending a big jam by Wheezy were smack talking jams by K Lethal and Sadie, both featuring lots of jammer-on-jammer action and other hijinks. Over the first 13 minutes of the second half, CRG outscored NEO by a 79-10 margin, bringing the score to 221-57.
And then, things got sloppy. Jammer K Lethal joined two of her blockers in the penalty box, giving NEO a 5-2 advantage on the track. Not surprisingly, this turned into a 20-0 jam for the visitors. CRG's blockers continued to visit the box with regularity over the next 4 jams, as NEO went on a 42-0 run. Sadie and Hannah stopped the bleeding for a bit, combining for 20 points over consecutive jams. Then K Lethal took another jammer penalty, heading off on a track cut. Betty, Sadie, and Jungle Lacy held up well for quite a while on the penalty killing unit. Once K got back on the track, she committed another track cut seconds later. That allowed Hummuscide to start the next jam alone, with a 5-2 pack, and she posted a big 24-0. Over the back-to-back jams K sat in the box, NEO posted 39 points. Ruff'n took a cameo with the star, only to be sent off as well. Of course, the score was secondary to the dwindling clock by then, and CRG finished with a 249-151 win. Well, CRG really finished by using four awesome skaters to take out the beer-a-tower!
Behold, my subjects. The Fortress of Beer!
While I was certainly very glad to see CRG post the W, those final 17 minutes were very troubling. Playoff-caliber teams don't suddenly fall apart when they get a big lead, and they don't get outscored 94-28 by teams such as NEO over a 17-minute span. CRG need to come to the arena with an "every jam matters" mentality. Sure, the talent differential in this bout was determinative, but avoiding mental mistakes and building the ability to put teams away will be vital in closer contests.
I looked at quite a few candidates for Black Sheep MVP in this bout, and eventually narrowed it to two. So, I'm naming co-MVP's. Wheezy was, as she often has been in the past year or so, CRG's most consistent jammer. She did have an ill-timed (is there ever a good time?) jammer penalty late in the first half, but her record otherwise was sterling. She didn't get into any of the taunting and showboating, preferring to do her job on every jam as though it were the first of the game. I love Wheezy's growing strength. A year ago, she probably would not have been able to plow through blockers the way she did in this one. I can only hope that my hard work in the gym will pay off as well as hers.
My other co-MVP is Ruff'n the Passer. I'll give her a break on the last-minute jammer penalty, playing out of position in a blowout. When I look at the jams that featured excellent pack work, #29 appears in my notes so very many times. In this bout, Ruff'n did everything of which a blocker could be asked. She held to her position in full packs and did her best to keep the levee from breaking in shorthanded situations. She booty-blocked jammers into frustration when she wasn't dropping them to the floor. This was the best all-around game I have seen in the years of watching her.
As for the other jammers, they all did some very good things. If I were giving an MVP for the middle 30 minutes of the game, it would go to K Lethal. She looked really fast and had some amazingly athletic moves when needed. K posted more of her team's big-point jams than anyone else, a testament to her explosiveness. However, she also continued to give points away with mental mistakes and jammer penalties. CRG lost to lower-ranked Bleeding Heartland by three points earlier this month, so eliminating some of those will be vital to winning the rematch. Sadistic Sadie did a bit of everything. She's in great shape, and it showed in her speed and endurance. There's probably a bit more rust to knock off before she regains the awesome elusiveness she had before, as Sadie was stood up by a few very pedestrian solo blocking attempts. Hannah Barbaric took a few jams and looked very Hannah-like: fierce, strong, and technically sound. Both Hannah and Sadie contributed quite a bit on the blocking side, as well.
Other blockers of note included, well...just about everyone. Not a single Black Sheep player rated in the minus categories for this bout. Karma Krash was superb, leading many of the game's strongest packs. June with a Cleaver is usually quietly effective. In this game, she screamed for attention with some thundering hits as well. Penn Tupanga played a steady role in some textbook pack play, rating higher than she has in any other game I've seen. Sailor Scary was a physical presence, and her underlying level of play was excellent as well. I've seen Betty and Candy play stronger games before, but I'll take 80% of those two for my team anytime.
On the NEO side, Holley Car Brader was by far the best jammer. She used her long strides well, building up lots of speed. She also showed off some power moves a few times, going right through solo blocks from tough CRG skaters. The other Akron jammers (Hummuscide, Twin Pistols, and Taking Names) were mostly bottled up by good CRG blocking. I noticed Finnish Her and Take-Out doing some nice blocking work on the Akron side. Assuming that my memory holds, I saw Ivanna Destroya years ago as a member of Burning River. She played a good game and provided me with a bit of extra derby nostalgia.
After the bout, I got a little extra face time with more of the CRG skaters. During intermissions, I was lucky enough to see two of my all-time favorites, The Librarian and Killian Destroy. I also got more time with Wendy, Wheezy, Big Ugly, and Cincy Psych-o. After the bout, I did all I could to talk with many skaters. It took 5 1/2 years, but I finally got a chance to meet Juwana. I also had my first real conversation with Sadie and a longer one with Mirderher. Karma Krash was charming as always, Candy Kickass is similarly worth the time, and a bit of extra time with Miss Print never hurt anyone. As our time was dwindling, I caught up with Betty. She is perhaps the sweetest of all, and that's no small feat. Just before we were shooed out of the arena, I managed to get one good picture, standing up with Betty, Sadie, and Wheezy. As I said before, I try to make every minute there count.
Seven legs' worth of awesome!
Okay, let's tidy up with some cheers and jeers on the overall experience.
CHEER: The sound/PA system was the best it's been in years. Whoever worked on that gets a special MVP from me. I was able to understand at least half of what the in-house announcer said.
JEER: On the topic of sound, I hate when teams play music during the bout action. It's tough enough to hear the PA and the sounds from the track. Why drown it out with extraneous noise? Save the music for warm-ups and time-outs.
CHEER: The welcome and accessibility inside the venue were wonderful. Thanks to Lauren and Thadd for making sure I had a great overall experience. I also loved the scoreboard welcome.
JEER: Still some scoreboard issues at the Gardens. The score on the big scoreboard shut down partway into each game. Also, the clock displayed the time of day, rather than the time remaining in the period. With the hockey scoreboard behind turn three unavailable, this presented a big problem for folks in the general areas of turn three and four. If adequate game information cannot be shown on the center scoreboard, perhaps CRG should invest in another projection screen to place behind turn one.
CHEER: The Lambs finally got a 60-minute home game! 'Saboutfriggintime!!
JEER: The CRG bout schedulers could have done better here. I would buy NEO A vs. the Lambs, but I'd still take the Lambs and give you 30 points. I criticized the schedule when it was released. Tough to move up in the rankings when you play mostly lower-ranked teams.
CHEER: The bratwurst and hot pretzel were as delicious as ever.
CHEER: Everyone at the Cincinnati Gardens was very helpful and polite.
CHEER: I got a nice sales pitch about men's derby, and it moved me from agnostic to curious. Curious about the game. I still like girls.
CHEER: I really enjoyed chatting with the "mystery" ref. I wish I could get to know more of the support staff of CRG. Plus, I thought the officiating in this game was very good overall.
CHEER: How could anyone have anything but a magnificent time with the love I received from so many?
Our time sadly elapsed, we made our way out of the arena. A short 3 1/2 hours later, I was back among the semi-living at the rehab center. My presence in Cincy lasted a mere 5 1/2 hours, but the joy and inspiration I carried back home will endure for some time to come. Mr. Tyler, any closing remarks?