Into the Great Unknown, Part 1: WFTDA Playoffs 2012

Plunge into our playoff season coverage, first with a look at the WFTDA. What's going to happen with such a tired old rule set in play?

…Continued from Page 1

East Region

September 28-30 – Burlington, VT
Hosted by Green Mountain Derby Dames and Montréal Roller Derby

East Region Seeds

  1. Gotham
  2. Philly
  3. Montreal
  4. Charm City
  5. Steel City
  6. London
  7. Boston
  8. Carolina
  9. Dutchland
  10. D.C.

So yeah, Gotham is going to obliterate everyone in the East.

Again.

The only question, as it has been in the last three years, is who their whipping boy (girl?) will be en route to yet another regional title. The odds-on favorite again this year is Philly, who is coming off a sanctioned sweep at Rollercon (though that included a win over depleted Rose City) and a heroic showing against the might of Team USA that same weekend. I say “heroic,” because their margin of defeat in that game (-178) was less than in their ECDX defeat at the hands of Gotham (-211), which actually-probably says more about Gotham than it does about Philly.

Anyway, should the seeding hold, Philly will get their second shot at Montreal in the semifinals, a team they handily defeated four months ago, 241-96. Montreal has been making (colorful) splashes on the track with great results, namely the 153-131 triomphe they had over Charm City at ECDX to land them with an inside track to make it to Championships, likely via the third place game.

Ah, but this playoff season is about unknowns, and the London Rollergirls are, as ever, one of the biggest. Unlike last year, where we got to see them play established WFTDA teams before their maiden tournament voyage, this year the ranking voters only got to see them play against two new WFTDA teams in Europe, including a 667-18 game against Auld Reekie, if you can call a 649-point margin of victory anything resembling a “game.” With no new  real data to go off of, they slotted London down a spot to #6, to make room for Montreal at #3.

Oh hey! The #3 and #6 seeds play each other in the quarterfinal round of the regionals! Looks like we have might have ourselves a Rocky-Oly-type matchup in the East, too, as readers will remember—or rather, never forget—London’s thrilling 137-135 victory over Montreal in the 5th place game from the East regional in Baltimore last year. There’s no reason to think that this year’s stronger Montreal team won’t put up a similar effort in their opener.

Then again, we don’t know how much stronger London has gotten themselves. No on has seen them play against a strong team this year (aside from Team USA and their 263 point victory over London) so it’s hard to determine if they’re actually playing to their seed. This happened last year, when they surprised people coming out of the #10 seed—never mind the fact that voters didn’t know where to rank them for last year’s playoffs, either. For all we know, they may be good enough to get to the final, let alone the third place game; they could have potentially beaten Philly at last year’s regional if not for … well, you know.

This leaves Charm City and Steel City in the 4-5 matchup left to decide who gets a bid to the third-place game by way of a Gotham pummeling.  The two teams haven’t played each other since last year, where Charm got the best of Steel first in London, and again in the 2011 East region third-place game. There’s no reason to think that won’t continue this year, although the  common opponent they share is Rat City, who beat Charm by 155, but beat Steel by only 80, on back-to-back June days.

But throw out those results against Rat City for reasons, I will … uh, talk about later. It’s best to keep the eyes on in-region results, and Charm City’s 23 point loss to Philly two months ago suggests Charm is still good enough to threaten to take over the #2 regional seed (though they probably won’t face Philly for it this tournament cycle). Make of that as you will.

Oh, and one would be remiss to not mention that the winner of the Carolina-Dutchland game will face Gotham. Dutchland has got a great chance advance to that game (and claim a ranking they actually deserve) owing to their strong showings in losses vs. #E4 Steel City (-6) and #E7 Boston (-19). If that happens, what happens after that could be an unknown—or maybe, it won’t be.

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South Central Region

October 5-7 – Lincoln, NE – Hosted by No Coast Derby Girls

South Central Region Seeds

  1. Texas
  2. Kansas City
  3. Houston
  4. Tampa Bay
  5. Nashville
  6. Atlanta
  7. No Coast
  8. Omaha
  9. Tallahassee
  10. Jacksonville

In a year of unknowns, there’s one thing you can always hang your hat on at the end of the day: Texas and Kansas City will continue to dominate the South Central, and will likely do so this year as well. Traditionally, the two regional powers have opted to schedule cupcake games (a sports tradition in the south, mind you) in-region, saving their big guns for the biggest and baddest national opponents.

Texas has been busier in that regard. After comfortably beating the #3 regional seed Houston 143-90 in May, it was off to play Rose City (loss); Montreal and Philly (both wins); Windy City, Bay Area and Gotham at the Star of Texas Bowl (all losses), and Rat City and Oly (two more losses) to wrap up their pre-playoffs warm-up. It’s your typical Texas schedule nowadays: Get ready for Kansas City by putting yourself through a gauntlet.

KC’s sked of majors wasn’t as punishing, but it wasn’t a slouch, either: Montreal (win), Rocky Mountain and Denver (two big losses), Bay Area (loss), Naptown and Detroit (two 3-point losses), and just this past weekend, Minnesota (a big win). The closest an in-region opponent got to beating my favorite radio station was #S8 Omaha in April, 155-88.

You might as well save yourself the anguish and look forward to another Texas/Kansas City regional final, which judging by last year’s contest—or at least, the first 40 minutes of it, before penalties and power jams marred the relatively clean game up to that point—is sure to be another good’un. But with the top two slots seemingly locked in, that begs the question of who will take the third spot and join the two southern powerhouses in their home region for the Championships.

Will Atlanta make a run to play in front of their home crowd come November? Unlikely, as they’ve lost to both the teams ahead of them in the rankings; even if they get through their first game, they won’t get by Kansas City in the semis. Only one of Tampa Bay and Nashville will make it out of the first round, and judging by both their results this year, that game is pretty much a toss-up. Houston is probably the best positioned team, and they’re hoping a Texas-like mini schedule (losses vs. Rose City, Windy City, and Texas themselves) will help them capture some of that Southern mojo and catapult them into bigger and better things.

So like the East, the participants and winner of the 3rd-place game in the South Central is pretty much open season as to who could take it, with at least three teams in each region within a shout of getting it. But unlike the East, which has very good mid-ranking teams, the mid-packers in the South have been seemingly the weakest of all four regions, if DNN’s power rankings over the months are any indication.

Not that there’s anything horrible about with seeing Texas and Kansas City constantly fight it out at the top, mind you. But part of me wonders if their continued dominance has anything to do with the fact that they don’t play games against their own region as often as those within the other three regions do. Just look at the North Central: #N5 Ohio didn’t rise up the NC rankings (and start beating teams above them) because they played tough games outside their region versus top national teams. They got to where they are because they played tough games against their own region, including the top dogs, which is starting to resemble the west in terms of overall depth of quality teams, both at the top and in the middle.

I don’t think that’s an accident. Maybe once the WFTDA gets its rules updated, it should start thinking about getting uniform regional schedules put together so the mid-packers can more frequently play the best in their own region, not just hope that they schedule them around their flashy marquee national dates. Of all places, the South should know that talent developed at home is the best kind of talent you can have.

Whether or not the WFTDA and its voting population will ever see it that way and codify something to that effect in the rules is probably one of the biggest unknowns of them all.

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A Final Word

Earlier today (Sept. 10), the WFTDA looked to shore up the dam with a new set of rules clarifications, released just in time for the first regional tournament this weekend. There were nine of them in total, and eight of them were relatively minor or obscure things such as penalty box panty passes or an injured skater returning before her three jam sit-out has expired.

The ninth one, however, is of significance. For the tl;dr crowd, it is basically clarifying that 1) clockwise-skating packs are a-ok in the WFTDA rulebook, and more importantly, 2) when the pack comes to a stop, a team can begin to gradually skate forward and not be penalized for destroying the pack.

On account of point 1: Since backwards-skating packs are affirmed to be recognized as “normal gameplay,” that means the WFTDA has officially sanctioned the potential for a fast-skating jammer going forwards to meet a skating pack moving backwards. I’ve already said it, but I’ll say it again: For all the priorities the WFTDA claims to have in regards to player safety, having rules that legally allow for the potential of a huge collision of skaters going in opposite directions at speed is, quite simply, fucking stupid.

But it’s point 2 that some people may bring a sense of relief to some. Apparently this has always been legal, but now it’s been made clear: If a team is stuck in a stopped pack during power jam, they can “gradually” start skating forward to start it moving again. That’s all well and good, but unfortunately this revelation will not make the “sausage” power jam strategy of not skating or not engaging any less effective, any less unfair, or any less boring—and it’s not just because the other team has equal rights to “gradually” slow down to bring it to a stop again.

And it’s here where our favorite roller derby league fits into this picture.

Love them or hate them, Rat City is a team that knows what it wants, knows what it has to do to get it, and is so focused on getting it that it won’t let outside distractions like booing or fans leaving them distract them from playing the game the way they want to play it … within the established rules, of course.

I speak of the no-pack situation and how much of a science their team has it down to creating it at will, in every possible situation imaginable.

Obviously, everyone plays the pack manipulation game in derby nowadays, with teams wanting to cash in on some easy points during power jams by simply not skating and not engaging their opponents. But I’m singling out Rat City here because they were one of the first to realize that you don’t need a power jam to use the no-skating no-pack play to an advantage, and without question are one of the best, if not the best, at using it effectively.

So I’m giving Rat City their due in this regard. However, this talent they have could prove disastrous for the WFTDA if it’s looking to expose new fans to their game this year during the playoffs.

Just because the rules actually let a team trapped at the front of the pack get it the pack moving again isn’t going to change the fact that in doing so they’re just putting themselves at jeopardy of splitting the pack again, defeating the purpose of getting the pack moving in the first place. Just look at how easily Rat City (or at least, one of their home teams) manages to do their (no)thing in a banked track game, where a tighter pack proximity, harsher pack destruction penalties, and required forward motion seemingly make the no-pack game less effective.

Or not.

It’s plain as day that this kind of strategy is deathly effective on power jams, especially if you have an elite jammer—say, Carmen Getsome—to push that pack forward and collect all those free and easy points. But the danger here is that it’s also incredibly effective during normal jams too, and not just so the back wall can let their forward jammer get through for lead jammer.

If a team doesn’t get lead jammer on the initial pass, all they have to do is what Rat City does: Drop back, make a half-assed attempt to help their jammer through the opposing wall, then drop back even more and split the pack themselves to get their jammer out before the opposing jammer has a chance to get into scoring position.

This tactic ensures that in most situations, the worst that will happen to them is a 4-0 jam loss. Depending on how quickly they can turn this trick and how steadfast their rear wall is in stopping the incoming jammer, they may even get away with a 0-0 jam washout.

Their June game against Bay Area in Seattle is a prime example of this. Bay Area ran circles around Rat City for the entire game getting lead calls and jam wins all over the place. So thorough was their visitor’s domination, there were 27 straight jams—more than half of the 48 total in the game—where Rat only scored 26 total points on eight scoring passes. Flat Track Stats has the per-jam scoring table, which you can find here, and as you’ll see on the chart there are a lot of other flat spots where Rat City had no real response for Bay Area’s relentless defense.

However, because Rat City is so adept at disengaging their blockers and splitting the pack to free their jammer before any real damage is done to them on the scoreboard, Bay Area was never able to build a lead as significant as their domination. Eleven of BAD’s jam wins during that run were 4-0 or less, and six of them were 0-0 jams. Though they did finally get a good lead up with a few power jams, that Rat could keep the game close enough to capitalize with even bigger power jams in response put the game’s final result in jeopardy, despite Rat City getting shellacked the whole way through.

Down by 5 points going into the last jam, Rat City won a stroke of luck when the Bay Area jammer got sent to the box on the initial pass. Predictably, Rat went right for the sausage, picked up 10 points, and looked like they were going to steal another win. But as they say, karma is a bitch; instead of calling off the jam to seal the deal, Rat’s jammer got penalized herself, putting the Bay Area jammer back on the track. Another sausage and two passes later, time expired and Bay Area escaped with a 152-147 victory that was rightfully theirs to begin with.

So even though Bay Area would absolutely kill Rat City under normal circumstances, their opening game against each other at the West regionals—or any game happening under the current rules—is not being played under normal circumstances. Who will win the game is a coin flip, but how the game will be won is easy to predict.

It will not be pretty. It will not be pleasant. We will not enjoy it. And if Bay Area loses that game in front of their home crowd in the way that Rat City is most capable (or as some might thing, only capable) of winning it, “Bay of Reckoning” may get too literal for its own good.

Worse, like all effective strategies, the regular jam pack-split sausage is spreading fast. Just a few weeks ago during the WFTDA.tv game between Naptown and Kansas City, KC went right for the full-strength sausage pack-split on the second jam of the game. It’s all but likely that we’re going to see many more teams roll out this tactic for the very first time during the playoffs, as they usually save their best stuff for last.

Last year, we saw what happened when teams took the delayed jam start tactic to its logical extreme, with multiple jams and many minutes more of no derby. This year, we could see the ultimate in no-pack strategies: Imagine long runs in games where there is more player disengagement than meaningful blocking in the pack, where both jammers get out via multiple pack splits initiated by both teams, and apathetic 0-0 jams where pack blockers completely ignore each other, keeping to themselves in their own 4-walls.

Even the most ardent supporters of “strategy derby” would have to admit there would be no merit in seeing something like this happen over, and over, and over again. It such a scenario seems like it would never happen, don’t forget that it wasn’t long ago that people thought teams not skating and a jam never starting was impossible, or that no one would take an intentional penalty any more harmless than an IP minor.

It’s for this reason why the WFTDA is heading into a great unknown. It’s not just the unpredictably bad (and good, of course) things that may happen during this year’s playoffs. It’s the consequences that may come from them and the style of gameplay they choose to play in the foreseeable future. The organization took big risk that holding back the rules update would be worth sitting through another potentially bad year of roller derby … but based on what I’m hearing, that may be a risk that does not payoff the way fans are hoping it does.

So if you haven’t figured it out by now, I’m extremely pessimistic about the WFTDA playoffs this year. I’m going to cherish the good games with every morsel of my being, of course. But who knows if we’ll see too many more of them in the future?

Because I sure as hell don’t.

  • theoriginaldonald

    Will Carolina take care of things on its own end or will they need the Gramercy Refs to prevent ANOTHER DOUCHEland PR disaster?

    • All this talk about how the “sausage pack” is making the game less and less fun to watch, and you’re hung up on one team refusing to play an unwinnable game? And, if it’s such an awful thing that they did, why are they still VOTED into the top-10? Why have WFTDA, a SKATER RUN organization not changed the tournament rules to prevent it happening again?

      Dutchland’s move last year was unpopular, but totally understandable. Sorry, mate, the skaters have spoken.

      • theoriginaldonald

        and the fans have spoken as well, by the look of them posing as empty seats.

  • I think we’ll see the sausage pack go down in this tournament. The need for the affected team’s blockers to be more effective has hit critical.