USARS Regionals 2012: A Rough Start

A look at an understandably sloppy first round of USARS roller derby tournaments, with a few suggestions on how things can be improved.

… Continued from Page 1

USARS Rules and Gameplay Observations

– Pivot break rule “clarification” – A major source of confusion during the Southwest regional tournament was a clarification that was handed down by USARS. Refs were instructed to not honor a pivot break if the opposing jammer had already completed a first full scoring pass. This, despite there being absolutely nothing in the text of the rule that would even imply this could be possible. This wasn’t communicated to me—or the players, apparently—until the second day of the tournament. Compounding the confusion, this clarification appeared to have been rescinded (or not communicated to the officials) by the time the final regional, the Northwest, took place. There were plenty of late pivot breaks up there, or at least I thought there were.

Like a many other things in the maiden USARS rule book, this is something that needs consistency. Ideally, a pivot can break at any time after the other team is awarded lead status, including if that pivot’s jammer teammate is serving a penalty. (In current USARS rules, a pivot cannot break to score if that team is killing a power jam.) It would be easier to recognize and track and prevent fewer miscalls by removing gray areas. Even if USARS doesn’t do it this way for the national tournament, I would hope it has communicated to participating teams and refs the way it’s going to be called, and it’s called consistently throughout.

– Too Many Whistles – Remember how in the original WFTDA ruleset, every single friggin’ thing called for a whistle to be blown? It wasn’t that bad during USARS gameplay, but there’s definitely room for improvement. Another major point of confusion was that the signal for a pivot break and the signal for a minor (one minute, same severity as a WFTDA major) penalty was the same one-whistle blast. This caught out pivots who weren’t sure if they could go out to score or if they were being sent off for being out of play.

The fewer whistles that happen during live gameplay, the better. Penalty whistles are good and necessary, but past that they should be limited. You really don’t need an audible signal for a pivot break (or lead jammer, for that matter) since these are events that should be the responsibilities of the team communicating with one another to let know have happened, and can be better-tracked by referees through re-delegation of responsibilities. MADE and OSDA derby have had no whistles for such events for years, and they’ve gotten along without problems. Maybe USARS should think about doing the same.

– Hockey Honey, Born to Pivot – San Diego (and sometimes-Oly) player Hockey Honey normally plays pivot in WFTDA-rules games, but give her the stripe in a USARS bout and she knows exactly what needs to be done with it. Almost immediately she understood why staying at the front of the pack was critical for the pivot, and when she made mistakes that pushed her back into the pack, she quickly corrected them. She even has started to figure out some advanced pivot tactics, such as not immediately chasing after the lead jammer even if she’s in a position to do so. (Ask me in the comments if you want to know why someone would want do this.) She’s looks like a natural at the position, and she’s only played it in two full games!

And for pivots in general, it’s nice to see the position have relevance and real significance again. During timeouts I often saw pivots and jammers talking with each other on the sidelines. It’s refreshing to think about what they could be talking about and what strategies they might be sharing, strategies that would not be possible in WFTDA derby.

Which Scorer is Which? – I often have a hard time following jammers through the pack. The star on their helmets are actually quite small from a distance, and aren’t completely visible from all angles. It helps, of course, that a jammer ref is pointing right at them. But this isn’t the case for the trailing (or not-lead) jammer, and worse when that jammer just happens to be a pivot out on a scoring play. A ref waving his arms disapprovingly isn’t telling me where in the pack the active scoring player for a team is located.

Again, MADE and OSDA play have a better system in place for something like this. Both refs point to their active scoring players, but only the lead scorer gets the “L” in the air. Points are not reported until the jam ends. This way, there’s no confusing which helmet the scoring player is wearing: The jammers refs are always pointing right at them. This is something the WFTDA may want to consider as well, particularly because the lead jammer jammer ref puts down the “L” after the initial pass, after which point it may not be obvious which jammer is lead, or if there is even a lead jammer or not.

– Jammer Musical Con-chair-toes – In USARS games, a jam immediately ends when both jammers are simultaneously penalized. This makes a jammerless jam situation impossible, which is good. But there was a small quirk that I saw came about because of this rule during the Southwest tournament.

A team was on a power jam that had less than 10 seconds remaining. That team’s jammer copped a major (two-minute, effectively a WFTDA double-major) penalty that sent her to the box. The jam ended, but both teams started the next jam with a jammer.

This jam-ending situation does not take into account how much penalty time players need to serve or have remaining. It might be better in a situation like this if a team getting a two-minute power jam had the opportunity to use at least one minute of it after the double-jammer down situation, rather than none of it when the two jammers penalties “cancel” each other out despite the two penalties not being equal.

– Runaway Pussy Solutions – Yes, it happened. And when it did, most of the time is was painful to watch. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the pack rules need to be changed (although they could still be, I don’t know) to prevent it from happening at all costs.

There were three types of runaway pussy, and all of them can be curbed with possible rule tweaks in other areas of gameplay:

1. The defensive pullaway during power jams. The most common. Note that for this to happen, all the blockers on the defending team must slip around all blocks by the offensive team and gain the front of the pack. This means it’s mostly a team’s own fault they get pulled away from—which from strictly a competition standpoint, is completely fair. But from a spectator standpoint, it’s boring.

The simplest thing that can be done to counter the pullaway (and stop the boredom) is to have the jammer call off the jam once she sees her teammates have lost containment and let the other team race away the pack and their chances of scoring. This is actually to the jammer’s benefit, since doing so would save time on the power jam and let them have a new opportunity in a new jam.

But the problem is, a jammer (or active pivot) can’t always do that since they might not have lead status on the jam. They may have not earned it on the initial pass, or they may have not passed the lead jammer before they got sent off to the box (which makes lead status forfeit for the jam). So without the ability to end the jam, there exists no counter to runaway pussy.

The way to fix this? Make it so there always exists a lead jammer on the track. Simplify initial pass rules so that a jammer gets through legally and is declared lead; or gets through illegally and is sent to the penalty box. No-pass/no-penalty calls on the initial aren’t necessary here, particularly because they’re enabling a different problem (runaway pussy) to go on for longer than it needs to.

2. The pack speed ramp-up on a jam start. This one was responsible for just about all of the too-fast packs and dull games at the regional tournaments. Due to bench positioning, a team can position themselves at the front-inside of the start line, enabling them to immediately take the front of the pack after the jam starts. Once there, they can speed the pack up to their liking without much the other team can do in reply.

The problem here isn’t that a team can make the pack go as fast as they want. The problem is that they can do so extremely easily and without needing to contest the other team to do so. This is exactly the same problem in the WFTDA, where the jammer bench is on easy street to get rear positioning on the jammer line. The difference, obviously, is that it’s much harder physically to get to the front in a fast pack, then it is to get to the rear in a slow pack.

This issue caused teams to badly lose in games that they might have otherwise had a chance of staying competitive in. For an obvious example of this, see the first Birmingham vs. Deep South game from Southerns. By my eye, Birmingham and Deep South were about equally skilled. But BRD was able to start every jam at the front of the pack due to their pivot line bench positioning (benches don’t switch at halftime in USARS, at least they haven’t up to this point) making it impossible for DSD to get anything meaningful accomplished in the rear.

The only elegant way to solve this problem is mandate a fair and equal jam start formation. I explain the hows and whys behind that here, but long story short it guarantees that neither team can get into a position to infinitely speed the pack up right from the start, unless they get by the other team to do so. This gives both teams a fair shot at defending their position, and should theoretically keep initial pack speeds under control, even if a jam starts with one jammer in the penalty box.

3. The offensive pullaway to string out the pack. San Diego did this a lot in their two games against the Reap-Hers at the Southwest regional. Once they got to the front of the pack, they just kept on skating knowing their jammers were fast enough to catch up to the pack and pick off out-of-play opposing blockers dropping back as they struggled to keep pace.

Note that this wouldn’t happen as easily had the teams involved be much more equal in skill—a team can’t pull away from their opponents if their opponents are just as fast as they are! But since that’s not a guarantee moving forward, perhaps USARS might want to look at reducing jam time and penalty time as a way to counteract this issue.

The shorter the jam time, the less time the offense has to dilly-dally. The faster the pack gets, the less effective time a power jam offense has to score. So a 90 second jam, for example, would press the offense to play offense by engaging the other team to slow them down more quickly. Reducing penalty time down to, say, 45 seconds, would further force the offensive team to engage if they wanted to get a maximum scoring opportunity out of it.

So even though less time to act wouldn’t prevent a super-fast team from stringing out the pack, a competent opponent would be able to keep pace for long enough to render that strategy unreliable as the jam more quickly comes to a close.

Of course, if a team doesn’t want to find themselves in a runaway pussy situation, the best course of action would be to prevent it from happening in the first place. Any of the five players on a team can do this by keeping at least one opponent behind them at all times.

(It’s kind of the same thing with WFTDA power jams; if you don’t want to give them up, tell all five players on your team to not get a jammer penalty. That’s easy enough for four of them…)

Many thanks to KORfan for use of his awesome photo of ref confusion over pack definition. His Flickr photostream can be found here.

  • Hi, WindyMan, I have a couple of comment on next week’s USARS Nationals.

    First and foremost, DNN coverage of the tournament is not tentative. It’s a definite thing. My United tickets are bought, my hotel room is reserved, and our internet connection in the venue has been ordered. We’ll be bringing fans coverage of the entire tournament, including the men’s and juniors’ exhibition bouts, as a joint project of USARS, Derby News Network, Exploding Corpse Productions, and Ultimate Derby Scoreboard. Check out DNN’s Live page for the exact links to tune in: http://www.derbynewsnetwork.com/live

    Second, regarding officiating: You’re sending the Rawk? Shit, WindyMan, that’s all you had to say.

    See you in Fresno.

  • Joe Rollerfan

    Minor correction about the Northwest regional tournament: The second-place bout was between Underground and Snake Pit, not OneWorld. Snake Pit came in 2nd, Underground in 3rd, and OneWorld in 4th.

    • Argh! I knew I was forgetting a team. I’ll fix that, with apologies to Snake Pit.

  • Great post Windy. You have really valid points and we are definitely listening to all the ideas so that we can quickly improve. I want to mention two quick things:

    1. The regional qualifiers were planned and executed directly by the host leagues. We are very thankful and appreciative of what these leagues, the players and the officials did considering the short prep time they had. For Nationals it is a different story: although NOtown is the host league, USARS is running or is heavily involved with almost every part of the tournament. As everyone should expect, all aspects of the event will be better: organization, facilities, marketing, and of course, the level of play and the quality of the officials. The Roller Derby Committee has taken a number of steps to address as many issues as possible based on the Regional qualifiers. However, we know (and hope you all agree) that this is just the beginning, and that there is a long way to go and a lot of ways to improve. That is one of the most important commitments we have made to the sport: every single day we are doing things to improve. So… you can certainly expect decisive adjustments to a few rules and other areas almost immediately after the tournaments.

    2. The pivot break “clarification” did not go through the Roller Derby Committee. Since then, we have talked about that situation (and others) and have instructed the officials to call the game as the rules indicate. In this case, the pivot’s ability to break is not limited by the position of the opposing team’s active scorer.

    Game play and the rules are definitely a priority for USARS and the Roller Derby Committee, and we are always listening to the community for good ideas. We have a lot of good partnerships coming down the pipeline and I am confident that next year is going to be a great one, not only for USARS, but for the entire derby world. We will continue trying to make the sport move forward (literally and figuratively).