BotB IV Diary, Part IV: Birth of a Superstar

Welcome (back) to WRDN’s continuing Battle on the Bank IV Diary, a wrap-up of banked track derby’s national invitational tournament. This six five-part diary will highlight six five games and use them to comment about the event—and the state of derby in general—from a different perspective. 

How did I have the best AND worst derby weekend of my life? What does it mean to take pride in your team—and your city? Why was the closest game of the weekend boring to me? And what does it mean for derby to see a superstar in the making? To find the answers to these and other questions, read on… 

Previous BotB Diary Entries: Part I · Part II · Part III

Birth of a Superstar

Team Legit 141, Los Angeles 117

The championship game at Battle of the Bank was to be contested between the L.A. Derby Dolls and Team Legit, the two teams that should have faced each other all along. They were the best teams all weekend, and the two teams most familiar with each other.

L.A. and Legit had faced each other three times the 15 months prior to the BotB finals. Last year, the Ri-ettes beat Legit in a full-length game at home, but Legit stole a semi-final win at the Battle on the Bank III that summer. Earlier this year, Legit beat L.A. after a convincing run in the fourth quarter put the game out of reach.

Every game between L.A. and Legit is close, as they always seem to be at about the same level of skill. The teams’ equality was confirmed on the scoreboard of the championship match  at three-quarter time, when the score was tied 95-95.

During the quarter break, I couldn’t help but think back to the game earlier this year, where L.A. and Legit were also tied (or close enough to it) at the end of the third quarter. But in the fourth, Legit showed their stuff, outscored the Ri-ettes by 30 or so points, and ultimately coasted to a 125-96 win.

Flashback to the Doll Factory, January 22, 2011. I guess they hadn't invented color yet. (Photo Credit: Mia More/LA Derby Dolls)

From L.A.’s perspective, that January loss was somewhat understandable. The team had just picked its all-star roster, which had significant turnover from the year before. They also had a new coach to work with. Plus, it was the first game of their 2011 season. Any new team playing in the first game of the year would have to work some kinks out.

However, as I’ve mentioned previously on this blog, Los Angeles had since worked hard and set their sights of becoming Battle on the Bank champions. Their hard game schedule (vs. Gotham and Rocky Mountain? Yikes!) and harder training schedule was proof of wanting a little bit more out of themselves this year. Their decisive victory over San Diego in the BotB semis made the outgoing two-time champs look more like a speedbump than a roadblock on the way to that goal.

Team Legit, meanwhile, was mostly the same between their appearance at the Doll Factory earlier this year and their showing in Phoenix a few weeks ago. Going up against a much-improved and meaner Ri-ettes team, one would have to think that L.A. would have had enough in the tank to prevent a repeat of January’s defeat.

Yet, as the fourth quarter of the championship game got under way at the Veteran’s Memorial, Team Legit pulled a repeat of their fourth quarter performance in January and again pulled away from Los Angeles, skating home to an easy victory and taking the Battle on the Bank championship trophy.

So what happened this time around? L.A. lost to Team Legit two times in a row in the exact same way, despite the Ri-ettes’ clear improvement in the months between meetings. Team Legit couldn’t have improved as much as L.A. did within the same amount of time, surely, considering Legit “practices” by email and only gets to work together when they’re at the track for gametime. So it’s not as if they got to train super-hard together as a unit like the Ri-ettes did. Is there anything that can explain this?

Yes, actually.

Her name is Sarina Hayden.

Sarina "DeRanged" Hayden, skating for Team Legit at Battle on the Bank IV. And loving every second of it, by the looks of it. (Photo credit: Joe Rollerfan)

Many know her as DeRanged, ace skater for the Rocky Mountain Rollergirls. Whatever you call her, you’d be mad to not recognize the impact she had against the Ri-ettes in the championship game.

In a final where Team Legit scored 141 total points, Hayden scored 71 of them.  Seventy-one points. That’s half of all the points Team Legit scored. What’s more, 51 of those points came in the second half, when Legit needed them the most. Talk about a dominating performance in the clutch.

Most impressively, all of her points came against a Los Angeles team that’s way better than your average roller derby team. It’s not if she had scored them against a cupcake of an opponent, as many jammers do against inferior competition. Scoring loads and loads of points doesn’t mean anything if you’re getting them by passing skaters or teams that aren’t doing anything meaningful in response. More often than not, Hayden had to earn her points by getting around the defense on her own, a good defense that was giving Legit’s pack all it could handle.

Of course, Hayden is way, way, waaaaay better than your average roller derby player. She is, by far and away, the best jammer—nay, the best derby skater in the country. (…the world?) Not only is she the go-to-jammer for the WFTDA Champions on the flat track, she’s also the top jammer on the newly crowned Battle of the Bank champions Team Legit, an all-star team stacked with much of the best talent west of the Mississippi. So she’s the best of the best, as it were.

This makes her a de facto double champion and a double MVP, on the flat track and the banked track, all within a period of 12 months. How many other skaters can you say that about? (Oh yeah, her Rocky Mountain Rollergirls also beat L.A. and San Diego on the banked track, in case you needed triangulation assistance to confirm.)

But don’t just take my word for it. Hear what our beloved Dumptruck has to say about her at the end of this informative and entertaining highlight reel of Hayden at Battle on the Bank IV. What else needs to be said?

What makes her so good? Her background in speedskating explains a few things, but I think there’s more to it than that. I think she’s just a natural roller derby talent. Here are some things I observed about Hayden during the L.A.-Legit game, and in fact throughout the entire tournament, which I’ve seen few or no other jammers do with the same regularity that she does:

Acute Awareness – In one jam early in the championship game, Hayden had one blocker to beat before clearing the pack and getting lead jammer. However, the L.A. jammer had cleared all Legit blockers and only had to get around Hayden and her head blocker to get lead instead.

At that moment my mind, I had resolved that L.A. would get lead jammer. Time and time again I’ve seen one team’s jammer be oblivious to the position of the other team’s jammer, only noticing where they are if they happen to stumble upon them during the initial pass in the pack or when they get passed by the other jammer.

I mean, why does the bench always scream at a jammer to call it off? Shouldn’t it be second nature to a jammer where the other jammer is at all times?  Too many jammers have poor track awareness, in my opinion.

Hayden, of course, isn’t one of them. Just as she was entering turn 1, trying to go around the outside of the last L.A. blocker, the L.A. jammer made a beeline for the inside, going for the pass. Without even looking to the inside, Hayden leaned inward and spilled the L.A. jammer into the infield. It was if she sensed she was there the whole time and baited her to go underneath, knowing what the result of the play was going to be before it even started.

My brain could not resolve how awesome this was. It wasn’t that Hayden took out the other jammer in the way that she did. It was that she appeared to do it on instinct and made it look so easy and effortless.

As well, I observe that many jammers are too concerned with their own advancement through the pack to bother blocking the other jammer when the situation presents itself, mostly because they can’t seem to look ahead of them and know what’s behind them at the same time.

But Sarina Hayden can. She’s not afraid to engage on some jammer-on-jammer action, usually resulting in the opposing jammer engaging in some jammer-on-floor action.

Outright Speed – For me, there are a few jammers that come to mind when it comes to outright speed on the banked track. (Or flat track, for that matter.) But Hayden has a power and quickness in her stride that has no equal in the ranks of female derby skaters.

Once she breaks out of the pack, two things are certain: No one is fast enough to catch up to her, and no one is fast enough to outrun her. Even if she breaks out of the pack a straightaway behind an opposing jammer, she can close the gap so quickly a premature jam call-off or jammer lap point is a foregone conclusion.

There is a visible difference in speed between Hayden and just about any other jammer she happens to be up against. I can vividly remember crowds at the Doll Factory in Los Angeles or at the fairgrounds in San Diego reacting in amazement to how quickly she can catch up to a jammer ahead of her. This, in turn, creates a change in crowd atmosphere when the everyone recognizes her coming up to the line at the start of a jam. I can never forget the excitement in the building as people started to realize that that really good jammer is getting ready to go, as they check their programs to find out who she is.

I can only think of one, or maybe two other skaters in the country that can universally cause that kind of pre-jam tension to build in the opponent’s home venue. That doesn’t happen unless the crowd is seeing a player that’s head and shoulders above the rest.

And speaking on a personal level, I’ve been to NHL games many times, and have been fortunate enough to sit right up against the glass. The price you pay to sit that close to the action is well and truly worth it; nothing can compare to the speed an intensity of professional hockey when you’re that close to the action. It’s a feeling I carry with me, and one I can’t help but compare to roller derby.

There was a moment during the Legit-L.A. game at the Doll Factory in January where I was standing outside turn 2, watching Sarina Hayden skate solo through the corner with an intensity that I can only compare to that of watching a hockey game from ice level. It was only for a moment, but the feeling was the same. No other current derby skater I’ve seen could even come close to reproducing that intensity.

I can only imagine what I would feel if there were 10 Sarina Haydens on the track at the same time.

Skilful Strategies – Hayden’s abilities allow her to do things that other jammers can’t. One tactic, known colloquially as “feeding the baby,” is a DeRanged speciality.

The term is given to the action of a lead jammer blocking a trailing jammer out in front of the engagement zone, slowing the trailing jammer enough so the pack can catch back up and reabsorb the jammer amongst the blockers in the pack. This then allows the lead jammer to lap around the track unopposed, or at least buy more time for them to build up a bigger gap between jammers.

The first time I remember seeing Hayden do this was when she was skating on the flat track with Rocky Mountain. I wondered what the hell she was doing while setting up the play, deliberately slowing the action down. But then as she shepherded the other jammer back into the pack, the tactic immediately made perfect sense. It was one of the most brilliant things I’d seen happen in the modern game up to that point.

You need to have some pretty good one-one-one blocking skills to be able to pull off something like that. Even so, if a jammer trying it on the flat track were to botch the play, the worst that would happen is that the other jammer passes them up.  Provided they got out first and got lead, all they would need to do is call of the jam before the second jammer could get around and score. There’s little downside to trying the maneuver on the flat track despite the potential upside.

However, it’s a different story on the banked track. If you try doing the same thing in WORD rules and the opposing jammer can get around you, you lose lead jammer and can’t prevent them from scoring on your team. Plus, if you take 10 or 15 seconds trying to suck the other jammer back into the pack, with the time it took for the initial pass it doesn’t leave much time in a 60 second jam to get back up to speed and race back around to score, let alone get in multiple passes.

But we’re talking about Sarina Hayden. Not only can she keep most jammers behind her with relative ease, she’s so fast on the tilty track she doesn’t need much time at all to come back around and start scoring. She can even get in multiple scoring passes within the 60 second jams, even after taking the first 20 seconds off.

What’s more, Hayden doesn’t really need to use this strategy in the first place. She could outrun anyone who dares to come out behind her, and even build up a good gap doing it. One of the times she used this plan of action during the Battle on the Bank, it looked as if she was just daring the other jammer to come out of the pack, waiting at the front for a  few seconds instead of immediately making a breakout. It was almost as if  she did it just because she could.

When you’re getting to the point when you start toying with your competition, then yeah, you’re a pretty good player.

Blocking prowess – Oh, yeah…Hayden is also a really good blocker. She has the skate skills to be quick on her feet no matter the situation, and can keep people behind her just as well as she can leave them in her wake.

The best way to demonstrate her all-around derby skills would be to watch the second half of the final against L.A. (You know, that one game where she scored 71 points.) In the third quarter, Michelle Kwan (Rice Rocket) had to leave the game in order to catch her flight home, which left Team Legit with only two top-tier jammers, Lacey Evans (Carmen Getsome) and Hayden. The two effectively alternated the star in the jams following.

I didn’t notice it while the game was happening live, but as I re-watched the final some weeks later I was taken aback at how little time Hayden spent on the bench in the second half. She was either jamming and scoring a lot of points, or blocking and stopping a lot of points from being scored. In fact, that the only time I really noticed Hayden got to take a jam off was when she was in the penalty box. Talk about a workaholic.

I guess if you have a job that you love, you never need to work a day in your life.

– – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

Obviously, a lot of good jammers in the WFTDA have some of these qualities. A few might have them all. But in my opinion, none of them have them to the extent that Sarina Hayden does. It’s like the difference between a great player, and a superstar.

When I think about a skater like Hayden (or DeRanged, if you like), I can’t help but make comparisons to superstars in other sports. Think about names like Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, Peyton Manning, Tom Brady, Albert Pujols, Derek Jeter, Alex Ovechkin, Sidney Crosby, or Landon Donovan. Even if you don’t like sports, you’ve probably heard these names before.

But that’s the thing: Players like these are so good in their respective sports, they transcend the culture of sport and break into popular culture, bringing new fans and new interest to their sports in the process.

Consider Tiger Woods, who by himself brought in millions of fans (and sponsorship dollars) to professional golf, just because they wanted to see him do what he does best. That golf’s ratings and popularity have fallen since Tiger has had his off-the-course issues just proves that one or a few super-elite players can dictate the how well an entire sport is perceived by the outside world.

Would the NBA be as popular without players like Kobe Bryant or Lebron James? Hell no, it wouldn't. Would roller derby be more popular if it had the roller-skating equivalent of Kobe and Lebron? You tell me.

Roller derby would surely benefit from a similar bump in interest. You’d be lying if you didn’t agree. What if derby had a superstar that the common (wo)man could relate to? People not familiar with the sport could see someone that really knew what they were doing, be oohed and aahed, and then use that as the jumping in point to learn more about the game, and the skaters who play it. That would bring more fans, more interest, more money to teams and leagues, and most importantly, new skaters to play the game.

Think about it. How many kids do you think took up golf because of Tiger Woods? Or how many youngsters decided to stick with soccer past their high school years because of Landon Donovan, the American soccer hero? And you know that there are ballers out there that look up to Kobe or Lebron (and now Dirk) and aspire to play like them, much like they themselves inspired to Be Like Mike.

But who can little girls (and boys) look up to when they get their first pair of roller skates? I say we should start thinking about answering that question with skaters as good as Sarina Hayden.

The modern roller derby movement is eventually going to get to the point where having recognizable and marketable stars will become a necessary step to expand the sport nationally, and internationally. Fans outside of the derby circles are going to want to find out who the best roller derby players in their region and in the country are. Even better, if they find out whether they want to or not.

It’s something that automatically happens in sports culture, pop culture, and human nature. People gravitate towards the best, because they want to be the best, see the best, and have the best. And if my last few trips to sporting events are any indication, people are willing to pay a little bit more, or to that little extra distance to see the best.

That’s something that roller derby can take advantage of. The roller derby of old used that leverage to great effect. Maybe it’s time for the modern game to think about it, but for the purposes of growing the sport in a positive way, and to help educate people that still are in the dark about derby. If derby is to have a superstar to shine a light on what roller derby has the potential to be, someone’s got to be the first.

So how about it, Sarina? Can I get your autograph?

Archived footage of this game is available through
Team Legit vs. Los Angeles, Part 1 
Team Legit vs. Los Angeles, Part 2