Into the Great Unknown, Part 2: USARS Regionals 2012

For Part 1 of WRDN’s roller derby tournament season preview, the 2012 WFTDA Playoffs, click here.

Now that the WFTDA playoff season is underway, it’s time to take a look at the playoff tournament for that “other” derby organization that, for better or worse, everyone is keeping an eye on: USA Roller Sports, and the group’s first-ever national roller derby championship.

In a playoff season filled with unknowns, how the USARS tournament will go is the greatest of them. Teams entering the competition have effectively volunteered to be guinea pigs for an unproven (but on paper, sound) ruleset in live competition, where most players, officials, and the greater roller derby community alike have little to no experience with them in practice.

In fact, just about all the participating leagues only started learning the USARS game a little more than a month ago, when USARS announced out of the blue that it would be accepting applications for the tournament. However, participating teams have been finding out that the new rules are relatively easy to pick up, as many of the contact rules and penalties in USARS derby are virtually identical in that of the WFTDA game. Most players and officials have had little trouble with the basics; after all, at the end of the day, roller derby is roller derby.

Still, USARS is giving the impression of coming off underprepared in organizing what is an altogether different beast for its first go at a team rollersport. When they announced that entry applications were open, they hadn’t yet figured out where the locations of the regionals would be, let alone who would host or officiate them. Plans were made for eight regional tournaments (of the nine USARS regions) with each capped at the first 16 to enter … but hosts were only found for six regions. Of those, only four had enough team entries to make an event worthwhile. None had gotten anywhere close to the entry cap limit.

So in the end, 16 total teams across four USARS regions will be taking part in the maiden voyage. (At least five more had shown interest but were not able to participate, including a league in New York that has gone all-in and switched exclusively to USARS rules for the foreseeable future.) Compared to the six-year old WFTDA, that’s a minuscule number … but on the other hand, that’s 20 more leagues than USARS had interested in its rules than there were three months ago, and you’ve got to start somewhere.

What USARS roller derby will look like next year is just as much of an unknown as how the first real games played under its ruleset will look like this year. Whether or not they can do a better job of being organized as they continue offering their roller derby option to leagues, players and fans is also an unknown. How they fare and how their success (or lack thereof) may or may not affect the greater community is also a big question mark.

But here and now, there is roller derby to be played, and there are more than 200 skaters ready to be pioneers in a different way to play, one that certainly has the potential to be fast, fair, and perhaps even more exciting than any form of derby before it. Or maybe, it’ll just be a big flop.

Though it’s unclear if we’ll see the game at its best in the regionals—the entrants are of the potluck variety when it comes to individual and team skill—one thing that is for certain is that if you think there ought to be just as much skating as there is blocking in roller derby, you’re going to see a lot of both in the USARS game. Not just because the rules mandate it, but because the style of game requires it in order to win.

With that, here are the 16 teams that are crazy enough to want to try and skate to play roller derby. For those who are only familiar with WFTDA rules and basic gameplay strategy, I’ll also touch on the hows and whys of the USARS game, its differences, its default strategies, and yes, even a loophole or two that might crop up during the course of gameplay.

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North Central Region

September 22 – Dubuque, Ia. – Hosted by Eastern Iowa Outlaws
Live Streaming Coverage on Derby News Network

The first-ever regional tournament played under the USARS tournament will also be one of its shortest, and to be honest, one of its weakest. With only three teams to show for and not much experience to be found within their recent results, it’s a big unknown if the derby played on this first Saturday will be any good at all.

But what is a known is probably one of the most silly things about this tournament: All three teams participating in it will qualify for the national championship by default, as the top three in each region get an invite. Really, the only question is whether or not any of them can manage to make the trip to Fresno this December … but the first place cash prize of about $400 won’t hurt the winner’s efforts to do it.

USARS Tournament Info Page
Tournament Structure and Schedule (PDF)
Team Rosters (PDF)

Participating Teams:

Eastern Iowa Outlaws (Dubuque, Ia.)  – Host Eastern Iowa is an unaffiliated roller derby league that normally plays under WFTDA rules. Their interleague record on the year looks to be about 6-1. The loss was a 232-147 game against Mid Iowa, who recently gained full WFTDA member status and entered the WFTDA regional rankings at #S11, just missing out on a playoff spot.

Tulsa Derby League All-Stars (Tulsa, Okla.) – Tulsa is formerly a WFTDA Apprentice League that dropped out of the program to revert back to independent status. Though solid info on their games are scarce, they “just bouted a WFTDA North Central Region team and took the victory 151-141.” Skaters from their league (not their all-stars) also played against two ranked WFTDA South Central teams in 2012, a 312-91 loss against #S25 Springfield, and a 312-57 loss at the hands of #S29 Oklahoma City, but how strong their main team is at this point in time, however, is not known.

Rushmore Rollerz (Rapid City, S.D.) – It’s a little hard to pin down info on Rushmore, a team out of western South Dakota (Southwest Dakota?) but they did have one result of interest in their light interleague schedule: The A’Salt Creek Roller Girls out of Casper, Wy.—who later in September will be hosting Rocky Mountain(!)—beat them 353-32. What is for sure is that these girls are coming to Dubuque looking for a challenge; of the 15-player game roster (one more than WFTDA rules), Rushmore will be bringing only ten.

Just going by the few results I could find for these teams (PROTIP: keep your websites updated and submit your scores everywhere!) you’d have to give an edge to to Eastern Iowa, given their halfway-decent showing against a near-playoff caliber WFTDA team. The other two in this group had some pretty big blowout losses against leagues who would normally get blownout themselves, but you could say that about any small-town league that may be relatively limited in practice time or real nearby competition.

Then again, when lined up next to each other these teams may be relatively equal with one another. Plus, all these leagues have been playing WFTDA games up to this point, and the different rules in USARS could lead to naturally closer games, if not more entertaining blowouts.

The reason for this is because of one of the primary rule differences between the WFTDA and USARS: The scoring abilities of the pivot position.

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The Pivot

In a WFTDA game (or an RDCL banked track game, for that matter) between two good teams, occasionally you’ll see a jam where both jammers blast through their opponents’ respective 4-walls simultaneously, creating a situation where the lead jammer has the trailing jammer right on her behind.

Naturally, the crowd goes wild at this, anticipating some jammer-on-jammer action. However, this moment of elation is generally short-lived, as the lead jammer will inevitably call off the jam immediately, either before or after she gets passed. Once in a blue moon you’ll see an eat-the-baby situation, but with rare (or situational) exceptions jammers with the ability to call off the jam in a WFTDA game will never enter the pack on a scoring attempt if their opposite number is about to do the same.

The defensive jam call-off is considered a smart play in WFTDA derby, and considering the risk vs. reward factor, you could hardly blame players for doing it. If they can call it off defensively and secure a 0-0 jam result, that’s better than potentially getting a penalty while trying to scrape off a few risky points, which may cost them a swing of 20 points or more on the ensuing power jam.

However, this passive philosophy creates a vacuum of potential game strategies within the WFTDA that teams have no reason to try and discover: If a lead jammer is effectively forced to enter the pack with the opposing jammer hot on her tail, what sort of pack blocking strategies and jammer tactics might come about because of that?

This is the environment that the USARS roller derby rule set is bringing to the table. In it (as well as in MADE and OSDA rules) the pivot can break from the pack to become an active scoring player (a jammer) without a panty pass, but only after the opposing jammer gets out of the pack first. (When a pivot breaks, their jammer teammate immediately becomes a blocker while still wearing the star.) Given that the pivot starts a jam at the front of the pack, they are in a prime position to do this.

During the initial pass, blockers still have to help their jammer and hinder the opposing jammer to help earn that all-important lead jammer status. But they also have a secondary goal, that of protecting their pivot and keeping them at the front of the pack as well as trying to push the other pivot back into it. If a team can hold back both the opposing jammer and enemy pivot within the pack, that team’s jammer can go to town on the pack unopposed and earn a maximum opportunity to score points.

A pivot controlling the front of the pack is important to a team’s offensive and defensive success. A) If a team earns jammer, a strong pivot in good position will make sure her team gets a scoring opportunity by preventing the other team from immediately sending out a scoring player in response. B) Likewise, a pivot not able hold the front (red) will put their team in a bad position to score.

This setup forces teams to use more creative pack teamwork and blocking schemes than just the “make a 4-wall, wait for the pack to split” play you see all the time during initial passes in WFTDA games. That’s because there are two scoring threats to defend against, not just the one; sort of like how a football team needs to spread their defense out to defend against the run and the pass at the same time.

Understandably, this is a lot more difficult to pull off with regularity. More often than not in a USARS game you’re going to see a pivot chase immediately after a jammer that has just broken out of the pack, particularly if a team doesn’t play an appropriate amount of defense to prevent that from happening. But this appears to create a dilemma for the lead jammer on the majority of jams: How are they going to keep the other team from scoring if there is an opposing scoring threat right behind them?

Well, do what is always done in roller derby: Have their pack blockers figure out the best defensive strategy for stopping the opposing jammer (or pivot) from entering the pack to score, while simultaneously executing an offensive plan for helping their jammer score as many points as they dare before calling it off—or risk losing lead jammer status as the other jammer passes them on the track.

The active pivot game forces all players on a team, be they lead jammers, chasing scorers, or pack blockers, to be super-tight with teamwork and blocking plays, particularly during a scoring pass. Oftentimes a team will only get one shot at scoring during a jam, and if they can’t deliver it will likely cost their team points instead as the other jammer can steal lead status (like in banked track rules) and do what she’d like with it, either calling it off herself or keep going for a bigger score differential.

Of course, there’s nothing stopping the lead jammer from calling the jam off early, an ability they can use at any moment they’re in front of the other team’s scorer. But to do so is to effectively throw away a scoring opportunity—if a jammer does it every time a pivot breaks after them, they’ll never score and they won’t win. Simple as that.

So really, a lead jammer has no choice but to plunge into the pack with the opposing jammer and count on teamwork, skill, and timing to grab more points than their opponent can on each scoring pass. It’s this facet of the USARS game that could breed strategy plays never-before-thought-of in WFTDA play, and just one part of why it could be very exciting to watch. Even during the inevitable blowouts, a whole team will truly be forced to work for every point from start to finish.

At the start of a jam in WFTDA roller derby, there’s the excitement of seeing which team will get their jammer out first on the initial pass. USARS rules simply extend that potential excitement to the scoring pass, where there’s something much, much more valuable on the line: Points. The better team will be the one who gets more of them, more often.

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Southwest Region

September 29-30 – Stockton, Calif. – Hosted by Port City Rollergirls
Live Streaming Coverage on Derby News Network

From one of the smallest regionals to the biggest, the Southwest region will have six teams playing in 12 full games over two days. Though the USARS North Central tourney will also be streamed, the Southwest will probably be the best look-see the derby community will get at USARS rules, as all 12 games will be webcast—no paid access pass required. (Although, it will be going up against the WFTDA East regional tournament, happening simultaneously.)

The USARS Southwest region also includes teams residing in the states of Arizona and Nevada, but only teams from California elected to enter the tournament. Despite this, none of the participating teams appeared to have faced each other recently, if ever. However, the few common opponents among them indicate that this tournament may a pretty competitive one.

USARS Tournament Info Page
Tournament Structure and Schedule
Team Rosters (PDF)

Participating Teams:

Port City Roller Girls (Stockton, Calif.) – Hosts Port City has had a good interleague season, going undefeated in WFTDA-rules games against their fellow mid-tier unaffiliated leagues within the state. Their most significant win of note was a 219-144 game earlier this month against the Ventura County Derby Darlins, a newly-added WFTDA Apprentice League.

San Diego Roller Derby (San Diego, Calif.) – You might recognize this team as the 2012 Spudtown Knockdown champions, beating the likes of #W11 Jet City en route to that title. Hockey Honey—when she’s not skating for the Oly Rollers—calls this her home team, which is an independent league that also has mens and juniors squads. (HH will be playing for Oly at WFTDA Westerns, then playing for SDRD at this tournament a week later.) Like most teams here, SDRD normally play other teams under WFTDA rules, but have been more than happy to try out something new for the USARS regional.

Resurrection Roller Girls (Rohnert Park, Calif.) – This is a very new league based an hour north of San Francisco that got started just less than a year ago, again playing in the WFTDA rules environment. To that effect, there’s no knowing what this team will bring to the tournament, except for two things: First, they share a common opponent with Port City in the Lake Tahoe Derby Dames. Port beat them 159-113; Resurrection beat them 235-104. Second, they were one of the teams attending the world premiere of Derby Baby at the Sonoma Film Festival, which is just plain awesome.

Sactown Smacktown (Sacramento, Calif.) – All I could find out about this league from the state capital is that they formed earlier this year and are based out of a roller skating rink within the city. That’s all I got. (This is a preview about unknowns, you see…)

Merced Grim Reap-Hers (Merced, Calif.) – Another unknown league, although there is a significant game of reference against the other teams they may wind up facing in this tournament, or at least, there will be once the scores get posted: Just this past weekend, Merced played against a split Lake Tahoe squad in half of a doubleheader. (That result will be posted here in an update once I can locate it.)

SINtral Valley Derby Girls (Modesto, Calif.) – Another league light on info and results, but there is a common WFTDA-rules opponent between them and the San Diego Roller Derby team in this USARS regional: The Undead Betties out of Antioch, Calif. SINtral defeated them 156-96; two weeks later, San Diego beat them 201-116. Considering how strong a team San Diego is, SINtral Valley doesn’t look half-bad themselves if just going by one game is enough to make that determination.

Going by the few results available, at least four teams here appear to have decent squads put together. The early favorite will still have to be San Diego Roller Derby, though, since they’ve won a mid-level WFTDA tournament and have played against top WFTDA teams in the region, including #W8 Angel City (albeit in a loss, 287-148). Hockey Honey herself may have put it best, when she told me that if her team could play in a game of skating, not scrumming, they “could beat Oly.”

While they may actually get a chance to play against Oly later in the year—more on that shortly—they’ll certainly get a chance to do some skating. This is because of how USARS rules define the pack and how those rules dictate how teams and their blocking corps will have to keep control of things within in it.

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The Pack

You know those strong, defensive blocker 4-walls you see all the time in WFTDA derby? They’re not going to be as effective in the USARS game.

In USARS rules, the pack is normally defined as the largest group of blockers in proximity, regardless of where that blob of blockers is. Just like in the WFTDA game, this allows an entire team to wall up on a single opposing blocker to slow the pack down to a favorable speed, such as during a power jam. The pack will not be able to slow to a crawl or stop, though, as the rules mandate that players skate forward at all times, and “stepping” forward is not considered skating forward.

But doing this against a jammer during the initial pass is a bad strategy. If a team has a 4-wall on the jammer at the rear of the pack, that means their pivot is back there as well. If that lone jammer can defeat the wall, a pivot buried that deep in the pack (and the jammer behind the other team’s 4-wall) won’t get out to score anytime soon, putting that team at risk of giving up multiple scoring pass attempts unopposed.

More critically, if a team is in a 4-wall at the rear of the pack, they have lost control of the pack altogether. The USARS pack definition redefines the pack to the entire team at the front (or the group at the front in a mixed split pack), meaning a team holding the front effectively gets unlimited time and speed control to keep their jammer defense up; the team at the back must stay within 10-foot proximity, or risk falling back out of play and let the back jammer get through for free. Even if the forward jammer can somehow get by without blocking help, the other team’s pivot will be free to break unopposed to chase, making it difficult for the lead jammer to pick up meaningful points.

No more ignoring the other team’s blockers: If you want to score big, you must block the other *team,* not just one player on it.

Therefore, initial pass strategy during the USARS tournaments are going to look a lot different than what you’re used to seeing in the WFTDA game. The pivots, by rule, start on the pivot line and will be inclined to launch off of it, making sure to stay ahead of the opposing blockers (and each other) if they want to stay useful to their team. Pack blockers—who, by rule, must start standing up within 10 feet of the pivot line—will have to balance pushing forward to capture the pivots, blocking back to hinder the opposing jammer, and assisting their own jammer through the pack.

Conveniently, there are three pack blockers on each team that could individually assume one of those specific roles. Or you could see a team favor defense, with two blockers stopping the jammer and one tying to help their pivot hold back the other pivot, hoping their jammer is good enough to get out on her own. Or maybe, all three blockers can focus completely on offense, hoping their team’s pivot is good enough to keep the other pivot, as many opposing blockers, and if it comes down to it, the enemy jammer from getting out of the pack before their team’s jammer can do so first.

There are a lot of variables a team must deal with during the initial pass, and exponentially more strategy plays at their disposal as a result. (Such as: Does a jammer about to break out delay doing so, if they see the other pivot guarding the front of the pack? Why not see for yourself?) But considering how relatively difficult it will be for a team to hold both scoring threats from a team within the pack, many times what you see on the initial pass will quickly develop into teams positioning themselves, or maintaining position if a team is exerting their dominance, for the scoring pass.

When both teams have a jammer (or a scoring pivot) out just feet from each other, the lead jammer can help her own cause by taking out the rear scoring plater with a legal block and buy a few extra seconds of unopposed scoring pass time. But barring that, teams will need to decide how many blockers they’ll risk keeping in the back for defensive blocking or offensive assisting…also known in roller derby terms as potential points.

Again, a team who has a rear 4-wall and a trapped goat is in a great spot for pack speed control, but maybe not so much when both jammers are coming in at it at the same time. If the 4-wall holds, the lead jammer will probably just get the one point in the pack, likely to call it off before the other jammer can score. But if the goated player is a great 1-on-1 blocker, they may be able to prevent the lead jammer from scoring any points at all, before her scoring teammate passes her for lead status and calls if off defensively. Or even better, if the goated player can manage to open up a hole in the wall, her jammer could follow her through it and pick up all 4 points before (or while, since scoring points ends at the 4th whistle of the call-off) the lead jammer calls it off.

Obviously, the more blocking help a team has at the rear, the better chance that team has of scoring. However, if both teams have scoring threats out, it putting more blockers at the rear of the pack simultaneously offers their opponent that many chances of scoring themselves. So much like anything else in roller derby, how a team plays in a tight jammer race situation is a balance of offense and defense. If you want give your jammer a chance to score, you’d better block the other jammer from doing the same, or at least limit their scoring opportunity by keeping your blockers forward in the pack.

But that doesn’t mean pack blockers can keep ignoring the blockers on the other team, for reasons I’ll explain shortly.

~~~ Continue to Page 2: The South, the Northwest … and Runaway Pussy ~~~