WFTDA Westerns 2012: Simply the Besterns*

I’ve made this admission on Twitter before, but let me make it here, too: In the almost six years I’ve followed modern roller derby, I hadn’t attended a full-on WFTDA-sanctioned event until this year. (Not for lack of trying, it’s just L.A. is all about the banked track.) Aside from Rollercon, Bay of Reckoning, the 2012 WFTDA west region playoffs, was truly the first big-girl flat track derby showcase I had a chance to attend.

Let me tell you: I’m glad I went, and I would go again in a heartbeat.

Though I knew there was going to be an awful lot of non-derby to be had, the fact that so many derby folk were going to be there guaranteed that I would have a good time no matter what was happening on the track. Plus, with such a high concentration of skating talent and team experience out there to see happen in so many games in three days, there was bound to be a lot of good stuff worth watching.

Thankfully, there were at least three great games every day, and not just from the vaunted top six in the west; even the bottom four put on a fantastic show. The venue was rocking, the skaters were (for the most part) skating, and when everything came together during the close games, it was bloody fantastic.

However, that doesn’t mean that everything that happened in Richmond was worth celebrating. In addition to the action and excitement, there was a lot of bad derby and vibes where there maybe shouldn’t have been. I saw a lot of things happen on the bay that I didn’t like, and I’m not one to keep that insight to myself.

As I share my thoughts about both the good and the bad I saw at Bay of Reckoning, I’ll relive some of the moments via the live tweets I put out on the WRDN Twitter. I’ll tell you right now that my overall experience at the event was wonderful…but strictly going by the derby played on the track, there’s still work to do for the WFTDA.

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A View to Kill For

It’s hard to believe that anything could steal the show from the great games that happened at the Craneway Pavilion, but there was: The Craneway Pavilion.

Holy balls, what a fantastic location for roller derby! The location alone is picturesque, sitting a mere 10 feet away from the waters of San Francisco Bay. On a clear day, the Bay Bridge is visible across the water, as are the morning clouds that drape over the Golden Gate. Watercraft pass by, visible through the giant window that makes up the entire south wall. Light scatters through the top windows and fills the venue with soft, natural light.

It’s just a flat-out pretty place to be. I think it was during one of the mid-afternoon Friday games, as I gazed out the window and saw a sailboat breezing by, that I realized the Craneway and derby were meant for each other. Even though I’d love to see derby also go pro and also go to the Olympics and also play in modern sports arenas filled tens of thousands of fans, the “warehouse derby” DIY roots of the modern game found their ultimate tribute here. It was a perfect blend of the wild past and modern presence of the sport, and I’m in love. Hard.

To top it off: You know the iconic “We Can Do It!” image of Rosie the Riveter? Yeah, this one. You’ve seen it dozens of times on derby bout flyers across the land, as it’s probably the most cliche and overused image on them. Incredibly, Rosie’s National Park Service memorial is right next door to the Craneway. Inconceivable!

Shaky Excitement

Entering the regional seeded #8, I saw Angel City as a team punching above their weight. Their roster additions before the playoffs made a big difference in a slim 10-point win over Wasatch on Friday—earlier this year, without that extra power, Wasatch beat them by 4 points. The Hollywood Scarlettes also gave Rose City a scare (as I believe I mentioned in my preview, ahem), staying within a (WFTDA) power jam’s margin at halftime before finally coming down to earth.

So as Angel City made their way into the “Best of the Rest of the West” 7th place title game against Sacred City on Sunday, it should have been a foregone conclusion that they would take the game quite easily. With about five minutes remaining in the contest, it sure looked that way as Sacred was down 49 and seemingly had no answer to Angel’s superb one-on-one blocking talents.

But then Angel City’s jammer copped a power jam. Sacred City immediately went to the sausage, and all that blocking skill Angel City had became useless in a stopped pack, with their remaining players dropping like flies to direction of play and out of play penalties. Meanwhile, Sacred’s jammer was racking up points. As the Sacred cheering section to my right was starting to sense blood in the water, I was rolling my eyes, disgusted at the fact that there was nothing ACDG’s non-penalized blockers could realistically or fairly do to prevent four scoring passes from going against them while Sacred’s blockers got to take a nice one-minute break from the game.

No, wait! Don’t leave. I promise, this isn’t another rant about what’s wrong with the WFTDA rules. Quite the opposite, actually.

It’s about everything that’s right about roller derby when the rules don’t get in the way of the game.

When the Angel City jammer returned to the track, Sacred put up an incredible 30 point jam regular jam. Their blockers worked their butts off to keep the Angel jammer behind them, all the while fending off the Angel blockers who desperately tried to free her. Sacred kept up this amazing sequence for six passes in two full minutes. In a mere three jams, Sacred City scored 57 points (though 19 via loophole derby) and launched into a 140-133 lead with just enough time for one more  do-or-die jam…

The finish of this game was so exciting, my hands were trembling as I was composing these tweets on my phone. Sacred’s cheering section got so loud, they went past the level of “safe” loudness and ventured into ear-bleeding territory, something that surprised me as much as it hurt my right ear in that such a decibel level was possible from human vocal chords.

I was absolutely thrilled to be able to see that last jam as it happened. It was absolutely pure roller derby.

But it’s also a bummer in retrospect. The full player effort, constant pack action, and natural forward motion of the pack that occurred in the last jam from start to finish is something I rarely see in WFTDA roller derby nowadays. It’s way better than those awful power jam (and increasingly, regular jam) sausages and in fact are a much better representation of which team is better at roller derby—assuming you define “roller derby” as an activity that simultaneously requires skating and constant blocking.

Here’s hoping—praying—that the forthcoming WFTDA rules update will help lead to more amazing sequences like this one more often throughout the course of games, not just once in a blue moon toward the end of one. With so many talented skaters and teams playing in the WFTDA, this type of sharp play doesn’t happen as much as it probably should. After all, wouldn’t it be great if there were jams like that in every game, regardless of how close the score was?

Rat Poison

The building was still in great spirits after the Sacred City victory as Rat City and Rocky Mountain took to the track for Sunday’s 5th place game. We all remember what happened in That Game between these two teams last year, and very early on this year’s tilt was living up to be another Rat/Rocky… uh, classic:

Thankfully, that turned out to be the only instance of start line shenanigans. After that both teams seemed to start with their knees planted near the jammer line when appropriate.

However, what followed is one of the most dumbfounding things I’ve ever witnessed in sports:

This was the “Besterns” derby tournament. Rat City and Rocky Mountain, two of the best teams in the country, with very excellent blockers and jammers on their rosters, were playing in a tight game from start to finish. The largest lead for either team was only 18 points until the closing seconds, where both teams still had a legitimate chance of taking it.

Yet somehow, some way, they played in the most anemic, most apathetic, most boring thing I have ever seen in person.

I wish I were exaggerating. I struggle to even call this a “game,” as that would imply some manner of enjoyment. (Let’s call it “That,” the sequel to That Game.) I can only remember one bit of action from the game worth mentioning (this one) but other than that there was nothing I’d call worthy of being called “roller derby,” if we agree to go by the definition mentioned previously.

The lack of atmosphere and the non-reaction of the mostly neutral crowd at the Craneway confirmed that they weren’t having much fun watching this, either. In fact, it appeared as if it finally dawned on most in the audience that what they were seeing was nothing more than one or two jammers going around in circles through porous and/or no-pack packs, and how terribly boring it was.

That Rat City’s own cheering section was mostly quiet throughout the game tells you all you need to know about how awful it was to witness, despite the illusion of a good game on the scoreboard.

Rat City has been leaving a trail of (pack) destruction behind them in the last few years. Just about all the games they play in outside of their home venue have been perfect examples of everything that is wrong with the WFTDA rule set. They just flatly deny any team they play a fair chance to put up a defense by making the pack disappear at will. This “strategy” has the most unfortunate side effect of preventing their opponents from engaging them, which has the byproduct of making for piss-poor boring game sequences.

Or in the case of their games against Rocky Mountain, entire piss-poor boring games. As much as the current WFTDA rule set can still produce absolute barn-burners between evenly matched teams (see: 3 of the 5 games on Sunday), it can also still produce rotten eggs like last year’s That Game and now this year’s just plain ol’ That. These are the types of games the WFTDA needs to eliminate, especially if they plan on growing the overall fanbase of their organization. Basically, two teams that good playing in games that bad should be highly improbable, not inevitable.

I maintain that if roller derby is being played “the right way,” a game will be fundamentally entertaining and fun to watch regardless of the score, whether it be high-scoring, low-scoring, a blowout or a last-jam nail-biter. Because if a game that’s super-close for the full 60 minutes is not the least bit exciting to just about everyone in the building, as this one was, then something is being done “the wrong way.” Here’s (again) hoping the rules update will at least attempt to address this in a meaningful way.

It’s Dangerous, Stupid

By this point, I’ve tuned out scrum starts. A lot of times I shake my head in amazement as I watch players who choose to put on roller skates do everything in their power to avoid using them as they were designed to be used, but for the most part I’m resigned to see a team get lead jammer before they even reach turn 1.

But what I can no longer ignore is the stupid—and sometimes, downright dangerous—things players are doing in “the scrum before the scrum.”

As you’d expect during the playoff season, teams are desperate to eke out every advantage they can. One big advantage is holding a rear blocking line during the during the jam start. Some of the extreme tactics they do to ensure they get the coveted rear wall position nearer the jammer line apparently means including your opponents in your pre-game pep talk.

(That was a mis-tweet; they did it on the jammer line, obviously. This was a clearly a Freudian slip. I miss you, Pivot Line. I love you.)

Many teams appear to have been practicing actions like launching themselves from their bench out onto the track at the moment the fourth whistle sounds. They’re getting to the jammer line before the start faster than they get to the pivot line after it. But this is continuing a potentially dangerous practice.

As a jam ends, players and referees will lower their defenses knowing that they don’t have to worry about getting clocked by anyone around them. However, at the same time they do this, bench players are sprinting to the jammer line as if they were in an active jam. If a player lazily leaving the track and one who is actively entering it don’t immediately see each other, it could lead to a very nasty collision.

Or rather, it already has.

I was looking right at this as it occurred and HH almost slammed face-first into the ground. This back block was so hard, she stayed hunched down on the track for several moments to regather herself. It was a significant impact, and so obvious a penalty should have been called immediately. But no ref saw it, as they were busy reporting points, reporting minor penalties, and resetting for the next jam; they wouldn’t expect such contact to occur during the jam reset, after all.

Unexpected collisions aren’t the only danger between jams. Players sprinting over from the pivot bench, desperate to get positioning on the jammer line, often knee-slide into position from speed. I saw this happen at Rollercon, and sure enough there was a lot of it going on at Westerns. Does anyone even consider that potentially sliding into someone’s knees, while that someone is traveling at a decent speed just as a jam has ended, miiiiiight be a very bad thing?

But the most horrid thing I saw all weekend was players from both Rose City and Denver literally jumping off their benches and belly-flopping onto the jammer line immediately after jams were ending. Not only does this look pathetically stupid, it’s also extremely dangerous; a player letting their guard down coming into turn 4 at the end of a jam would never expect a tripping hazard to materialize on the jammer line, yet there it was on many jam-ending sequences.

During the Denver-Oly game I had a nice conversation with Rose City announcer/bench coach Mike Chexx about derby (specifically, the wonderful benefits of the active, scoring pivot position) and as I watched a Denver blocker Shamu onto the jammer line again, I asked him if he thought that was dangerous. He agreed it was, but shrugged and could only hope it would be addressed in the new rules update.

Now, I’ll be honest here: I’ve been pretty harsh on the WFTDA as of late. If some of my regular readers disagree with my criticisms, that’s fine and dandy by me.

But this is something that we in the derby community absolutely MUST agree on: This sort of pre-jam nonsense needs to stop immediately. The WFTDA says they’re committed to player safety, but standing idly by as players are literally throwing themselves into the path of fast-moving skaters and hoping nothing goes wrong before the rules update kicks in—if the rules update even addresses this—is a dangerous policy to adopt.

~~~ Continue to Page 2 – Wasatch, Oly, and A Mile High Five ~~~