USARS Nationals 2012: That Was Fast

usars-derby-nationals-logoRoller derby history was made this past weekend. Although, exactly what kind of history will take a few years to fully figure out.

USA Roller Sports held its very first national roller derby tournament at the Fresno Convention Center in Fresno, Calif. Eight teams from around the country skated in three days of competition, culminating in–who else?–the Oly Rollers of Olympia, Wash. winning it all and taking home the inaugural Seltzer Cup championship trophy.

After a calamitous series of regional tournaments, which were hosted by local derby leagues, USARS itself organized and ran the national tournament, though not without the help of Fresno’s own NOtown Roller Derby who supported USARS in putting on the event.

The result of this switch was night and day. The schedule was followed like clockwork, and with a few significant exceptions the event ran smoothly for the most part. A brand-new SkateCourt surface was brought in for the competition track, while a second surface was tucked away in another room for team warm-ups.

As for the roller derby? Well, there’s a lot that happened. Some things were good. Some were great. Some were not so good. Some were terribly bad. For example: All of it was broadcast live on DNN for free (good!)—but sadly, USARS may not be posting the archives any time soon, if ever (bad!). Every team in attendance was able to play in at least one competitive game during the weekend (really good!)—but unfortunately, one of those teams ran into a serious problem that jeopardized their ability to continue playing in the tournament (really bad!).

Much could be said about last weekend, but I’ll keep it down to the five items that struck me most about it.

That Was Close!

The first day and a half of the tournament went pretty much how everyone expected: Teams far apart in skill level playing in one-sided games resulted in lopsided victories.

Oly had no trouble with Port City, winning 312-21. San Diego RD beat Deep South Derby 224-57; Resurrection RG did the same to Birmingham RD, 220-24. The closest contest of Friday, if you could really call it “close,” was a battle of derby leagues, the Tulsa Derby League All-Stars beating Underground Derby League 156-40.

Day two started off looking much the same way, with Port City further burying Underground 126-39 and Oly skating through Tulsa with a 241-24 victory.

Six blowouts in a row do not a competitive roller derby tournament make. (Then again, neither does a tournament that only started with 16 total teams who had but a few months to learn the rules.) But with how the seeding worked out, the regional rematches that were on the horizon teased that the good match-ups were yet to come.

And boy oh boy, did they come.

The third game of Saturday, Deep South vs. Birmingham, was tight all the way through to the end, Birmingham holding on to win after the last jam, 121-115. San Diego needed to claw their way back from an early deficit to overcome Resurrection, beating them 128-104 in what may have been the game of the tournament. Having come off a victory earlier in the day, Port City defeated Tulsa 96-79 in a hard-hitting contest of evenly-matched teams.

The close games continued into the final day. Underground and Deep South exchanged the lead a few times, with Underground finally getting a 2nd half lead larger than 15 points to break clear in the end and win 155-108. Port City-Resurrection, a rematch of the best game in the regional tournaments, lived up to its billing; after finding their lead dwindle to 9 points in the last five minutes of the game, Resurrection finally put it together and strong-armed their way to a 124-84 third-place victory.

With the exception of the San Diego-Oly championship final and the two Birmingham games (for reasons that will be explained later) every bout after the first six snoozers were extremely competitive. If you include the impromptu scrimmage and the amazing juniors exhibitions and that were part of the program, 7 out of the last 10 games the crowd got to see, and 4 out of the 5 on Sunday, were definitely worth the price of admission.

These close games had an edge to them, a natural flow that’s hard to describe if you didn’t see them in person. Part of the reason for that may have been because all players on both teams were effectively forced to engage each other at all times if they hoped to score points.

This led to many sequences of packs speeding up and slowing down not by rule, but by force. (Some might even call this “dynamic” roller derby.) The nature of the pivot position and the strategies required to cover it also created close-matchups in the pack, which often forced jammers to do battle with each other out in the open, creating some genuinely thrilling sequences. Even 0-0 jams were exciting, such as this sequence from the Port City-Resurrection third place game:

These close games also created a palpable tension in the venue. Unlike the Port City-Resurrection game, which featured teams relatively local to Fresno and had homer crowds cheering them on, the Deep South-Birmingham game had pretty much no one in the crowd with a direct rooting interest for either team, having come in all the way from Alabama.

Yet going into the last jam of their Saturday tilt, the entire building suddenly went dead with silence. No one was chatting in the stands or talking on the cell phones; they were on the edge of their seat, focused on the game, waiting for the players to launch off the line to start the game-deciding jam. You could have cut the tension in that room with a knife.

A national tournament would ideally have close games from A to Z. But this being their first crack at it, USARS should be pretty happy with how everything went from a competitive standpoint. Especially, considering that the participants in the inaugural tournament were a random sampling of teams not only willing to participate in the regionals, but able to to make the trip to Fresno for the finals.

My bottom line? I was pleasantly surprised at how close many games were, particularly when they started happening one right after another. I was hoping for at least the last two or three games to be the most competitive, at the minimum. But for that many to be in just the first year of play in this environment, when so few leagues were on board with it?

While it could have always gone better in Year Zero for USARS roller derby, I think they’ll take it.

Making Sense of the Rules

Coming into regionals, USARS only had a scant handful of beta test games to put its new rule set through its paces. There was more information to draw from going into Nationals, with 22 tournament games—and a couple more played between home teams of leagues that immediately switched to USARS rules after their regional tournaments—from which to start figuring out what may be wrong with the game and how to best interpret the existing rules for the finals (particularly those about the pivot).

This knowledge, combined with a more experienced ref crew, really showed. Yes, mistakes were still made, but many fewer than in the scatter-shot regional tournaments. And some of the newly agreed-upon rule interpretations caused some odd and confusing sequences, particularly the one that said they wouldn’t penalize a team that falls behind and gets lapped by the other team (and therefore, lapped by the pack). This happened five or six times over the weekend, and it was kind of a mess to follow when it did.

But for the most part, the new USARS ruleset held up remarkably well during its first true stress test. The number of close games was probably a blessing for USARS, since they revealed a lot of small rules issues that would have never come up in less competitive affairs.

Some of those issues include the consequences of not having an engagement zone outside the confines of the defined pack. A team up front that reacting to one their blockers getting goated and slowed behind them found themselves with no room to stay in play. Pivots trying to break from the top edge of the pack to activate their scoring abilities also got caught out out play this way, forcing them to retreat back before they could break out legally.

There was also confusion over whether or not the first jammer out of the pack was lead, especially after the LJ ref put down the “L” once that jammer hit the pack on a scoring run. I observed jammer refs shouting the long way across the track to confirm if their jammer was lead; that, along with the pivot’s ability to be a scoring player crossed up refs many-a-time in quickly granting (or sometimes, un-granting mid-whistles) a jam call-off when switching lead status.

Whether it was jam starts, pivot privileges, penalty enforcement procedures, referee responsibilities, and even that old trouble spot of pack definition, the members on the USARS roller derby board who were in attendance were definitely looking at any and every aspect of the game. They were even happy to take feedback from those in attendance (including me, of course) for their next rules revision coming out next year; I’m told it will definitely address some of the obvious issues they’ve already discovered.

Ignoring the text of the rule book for a moment, the thing that told me that USARS seems to be onto something with its version of roller derby was what I was feeling from the crowd that showed up for the tournament. It wasn’t a big crowd—including tourney skaters and staff, I’d estimate there were 150 to 200 people there during games on the last day.

But the feeling I was getting from most everyone there, be they players from other teams, staff, the announcers, the media table, and even some of those that came in from off the street, was that they had absolutely no problem following general gameplay. Aside from the few rules weird-outs where everyone on the track was confused, no one seemed to lose track of what was happening. Long story short, they knew when to cheer at and clap for a good scoring pass or a nice defensive play—even after some timely defensive pullaways.

A years-long veteran member of the L.A. Derby Dolls, a former player and now a trainer/coach, came up to Fresno for a day to check things out. I ran into her after she had seen a couple the first couple of great games on Saturday, and we talked a bit during the Tulsa-Port City match-up.

Being a derby vet, she understood the basics of the game handily. But after having a conversation about the finer points and some strategy options available to teams while watching what turned out to be yet another tight game, you could tell that she was starting to get it. She kept saying “this makes sense” and “I like it” every time her eyes told me her brain had finished processing the answer to a question she had.

She later said she hopes that as teams inevitably begin to try and exploit the rules, changes will be made to them to ensure that “the spirit of the game” USARS is trying to maintain is kept intact. While on that same thought, she began to brainstorm things that could go wrong, like a team deliberately allowing themselves to get lapped during a fast pack/pullaway/runaway pussy situation.

And wouldn’t you know it, that’s exactly what Port City started to do during power jams after they couldn’t hold their blocks in the pack.

If the USARS style of gameplay can immediately make sense to someone who has played WFTDA-esque derby for their entire life, that’s good. But it’ll be up to USARS to make sense out of the things in its rules that don’t make sense which, as has been demonstrated over the years, is easier said than done. We’ll see how they’re getting on with that in their next rules release.

That Was Junior Derby!?

Lately, I’ve been falling in love with junior roller derby. It’s almost impossible to not get sucked into it. You’ve got kids of all shapes and sizes, still learning to be comfortable on roller skates, wearing safety equipment that looks as if it was forced onto them by an overprotective mom, going around in circles playing roller derby. If the competition doesn’t get you, the adorableness will.

The juniors games I’ve seen on the flat and banked track up to this point have been mostly positional games, with contact only coming accidentally as players trip and fall down over each other. That gives the children jamming room to skate, though, part of the reason why juniors games have grown on me—unlike their big sisters, these kids want to move forward while playing roller derby.

So color me shocked and amazed when the two juniors exhibition games played during the weekend featured kids that not only knew how to skate—and I mean skate—they knew how to throw their weight around in fast, furious, full-contact USARS-rules gameplay.

It was glorious.

My first clue that these kids were something else was on Saturday, a few hours before the first juniors exhibition bout when Bakersfield Junior Roller Derby took to the main track to feel it out for a few minutes When I saw them doing a paceline I did a double take to make sure the players out there were in fact junior skaters. They looked poised their skating stride and very comfortable near other players (and this was obvious just during a brief warm-up), but they were still indeed young’uns.

BJRD was first to play the Motown Misfits (co-ed junior league of SINtral Valley, participants at the USARS SW regional) and though Motown didn’t have a very good team that day—Bakersfield won 264-77—some of their young players were crazy, crazy good.

A couple of their boy jammers appeared to have backgrounds in speed skating, which would explain their low skating stances. Like, mop the floor with their tongues kind of low. It was mesmerizing to watch kids that couldn’t have been any older than 10 or 11 go that quickly, with that kind of advanced skill.

By winning on Saturday, Bakersfield also got to play on Sunday against the V Town Derby Delinquents. V Town’s roster of players was also co-ed, but with a much broader age range. Going up against a couple of bigger kids didn’t deter the all-girls lineup of BJRD. This showed on the track in a big way, as the two teams played in what was, quite simply, a mind-blowingly fantastic roller derby game. Juniors or otherwise.

A life lesson for our children: See someone bigger than you? Hit him.  (Photo Credit: David Costa)

V Town won 125-87 in a bout that was so thoroughly entertaining, I heard some people call it the fourth, third, or even (somehow) the second best game of the entire weekend. Some of those people probably had a rooting interest in one or both juniors bouts, sure. But I don’t think anyone in that building expected that kind of game out of those kids. Congratulations are in order for all participants involved.

Though I’m sure a variant ruleset will be released for juniors leagues wishing to play by USARS rules eventually, it’s great that these junior players were able to pick up the new rules so easily, so well, and so quickly. It’s also refreshing to know that this kind of game, should it someday carve out its place in the juniors community, will make sure its participants will learn how to skate—not learn how to sausage (i.e., not skate) as is disturbingly becoming the case in some WFTDA-rules juniors programs.

Another Forfeit, But…

After poor scheduling and fatigue-related injuries caused four regional tournament games to be forfeited, there was a worry in the building that it could happen again during the national tournament. Those worries were tempered somewhat as the games got underway. However, it turned out that there would indeed be another forfeit at a USARS tournament.

But this one was much different than the others.

As did Oly and Deep South, Birmingham Roller Derby only brought ten players to Fresno. Their team is much bigger than that, but those ten were the only ones that could afford or were otherwise able to make the nearly 2,000 mile trip out west. (I don’t want to say BRD is a financially poor team, but when your jerseys are grey tank tops with numbers hand-painted on, there probably isn’t much money to go around for that kind of thing.) Still, they really wanted to be there and be there they were, albeit barely.

Birmingham proved that they were a team competent in the basics of USARS rules and strategies, having previously defeated their cross-state rivals Deep South Derby at the southern regional tournament. Even while getting blown out of the water in their Friday opener against Resurrection, who was a much, much better team, BRD didn’t look completely hopeless out there. Bad? Yes. But at times, not hopelessly so.

That showed when they got to pick on someone their own size. In a nationals rematch against Deep South early Saturday, Birmingham built up a 30 point lead heading into the final phase of the game. But then after losing 2 players to foul-outs, the lead got whittled down to 19 heading into the last jam. Deep South cut it down to six before inexplicably calling off the jam with 30 seconds to go, gifting BRD a seat-of-their-pants victory.

Unfortunately, this would be the last game Birmingham would get to enjoy participating in on the weekend.

They were next scheduled to play Resurrection in the loser’s bracket, the same team that thrashed them the day before. Though BRD was going to play two games in the same day (as was Tulsa) the circumstances they were playing it under were a lot more favorable than the back-to-back situation they and other teams faced in the regional tournaments. Six hours’ rest is plenty for any roller derby team between bouts, even in the harder style of USARS gameplay.

However, as Birmingham was starting to get roughed up by Resurrection again, they lost a player due to a tailbone injury. As the score started to get out of hand, players were desperate to still make a game out of it, which they weren’t doing well; their players were getting sent to the penalty box faster than they were leaving it. It got so bad so quickly, the webcast announcers commented that it looked as if BRD was trying to intentionally foul themselves out of the game.

But just as they were making that comment, with Resurrection up 165-26 in the 2nd, disaster happened.

This was a seriously bad, bad situation. One moment, Birmingham’s Sookie Smackhouse (to correct the typo in my tweet at the time) was pushing forward to try and get through a wall. The next, she was on the ground and not moving. At all. The EMTs were on her immediately, and stayed with her for what must have been five or ten minutes. But even after that long, it wasn’t apparent if she was moving.

As the medics rushed her to the hospital, USARS made the decision to end the game and call it a day. This was totally the right thing to do, since the last thing on everyone’s mind was roller derby. All that mattered was the well-being of Sookie.

Later in the evening, news came in on her status. She was not feeling well to begin with, having just recovered from the flu. But she was also under serious emotional distress, having just learned earlier in the day that her children back home were a just few hundred feet from a triple-homicide that took place in Birmingham. Considering recent events around the country, that was going to mentally fatigue her a great deal.

When you factor in the physical fatigue from having to skate twice as much as normal due to a short bench, it likely became too much for her. And down she went.

Thankfully, Sookie Smackhouse’s stay in hospital was short-lived. She was in good spirits on Sunday, even tuning into the webcast and commenting in the chatroom. Despite an eye injury and mild concussion from the fall, she was released late Sunday and flew back to Alabama the next day to rejoin her team and her family.

Despite this serious situation, many of Birmingham’s players were still hopeful they could patch up their injuries in time to contest the 5th place game against Tulsa on Sunday. However, their captain decided that it wasn’t going to happen, and in what was likely in the best interest in the health and safety of her team, she decided to forfeit their Sunday game that morning.

While forfeits have been something of an ongoing issue for USARS in its first tournament season, the circumstances surrounding the Birmingham forfeit were not ones they could have reasonably prevented. A combination of a short (but legal) roster and a freak medical emergency isn’t something you can really blame anyone on. An argument could be made that USARS might consider enforcing a minimum roster requirement (say, 12 players) to start a game to prevent an extremely short bench or a couple of injuries from skewing gameplay.

Still, USARS did the best they could have possibly done under the circumstances. They made the correct decision to end the game Sookie went down in. They also reacted quickly to fill the hole in the schedule left by Birmingham’s forfeit, organizing a scrimmage between a split-up Tulsa squad and anyone in the building that happened to have their skate equipment with them (which was a lot, surprisingly). This ultimately turned out to be a fun game for the fans in attendance.

So even though one game at their national tournament got cut short and another one didn’t even happen at all, USARS passed an important test in my eyes. It’s easy to organize events when everything goes smoothly. It’s difficult when they do not. In directly running and controlling its first roller derby tournament, USARS made the difficult look easy. They should be acknowledged for that.

The Oly Rollers Unchained

Finally, a brief word on the only skating club to have won two different roller derby championship trophies, the Oly Rollers:

They are really, really good.

In the USARS rules environment, blocking, track awareness, and teamwork are important factors to the success of a team, not unlike any other form of roller derby. But unlike other forms of derby, particularly that of the WFTDA, speed is just as important of a factor. That’s not just outright speedskating speed, mind you—that means blocking, track awareness and teamwork while moving at speed, sometimes high speed. Only teams that feature very good skaters are capable of such feats.

This is why it was no surprise that Oly breezed past its competition at USARS Nationals so easily. Port City and Tulsa are solid teams in their own right, but their blocking skills were no match for Oly’s evasive skaters. To compensate for this, they had to speed up to help keep them behind. Once they hit their speed limits (or the butt of an Oly blocker in front of them) individual Oly players could turn on the jets, slip in front of them, then slow them down to lock down the pack and allow their jammers to come around for a quick scoring pass. Anyone trying to get back around them was met with perfectly-timed knockout blocks:

The only team at the tournament that was capable of skating fast with Oly was Hockey Honey’s San Diego Roller Derby Starlettes, the team that they faced in the final for the Seltzer Cup trophy.

The pre-game ceremonies before the Oly-San Diego final, Seltzer Cup and all.

Oly had a bit more trouble with San Diego than their previous two opponents. But that didn’t really show until the second half of the game, where Oly was only able to outscore SDRD 58-35. That’s not bad at all for a San Diego team that had looked shaky in re-beating Resurrection the day before.

But there was just the matter of the first half of the game. You see…

San Diego, for whatever reason, thought they could get away with starting two or three of their blockers in the back of the pack on the Oly jammer, while keeping their pivot (often Hockey Honey) alone at the front to fend for herself. The problem with this strategy: Oly’s jammers, when given room to move, are hella hard to lock on to and block. As the rear wall began to lose containment or slip out of play, it accelerated … but then it ran into the Oly blockers in front of them, breaking the wall up and springing the Oly jammer quite easily.

This odd strategy choice allowed Oly’s players up front to effectively go as fast as they needed to to engulf the San Diego pivot, crippling their offense. Once that was accomplished, Oly parked Sassy at the front of the pack as a blocker to shut down anyone (or sometimes, anytwo) trying to get by her up front. With little offensive blocking for their jammer or protective blocking for their pivot, and a Sassy 1-wall stuffing most other attempts to regain pack control, it’s no wonder San Diego got shutout in the first 40 minutes of the game, ultimately losing 181-35.

The ease with which Oly players were able to push forward, block back, weave through traffic and dart away was remarkable. Their track awareness was spooky-good, with all players individually reacting to a team call or a whistle as if they were all controlled by the same outside force. Their teamwork was superb, with players cycling forward in the pack every time someone blocked an opponent away from the point.

Many teams in roller derby can do these things. Not many can comfortably do them in fast packs. None of them can make it look as easy as the Oly Rollers can.

Sitting at up on the media risers near some of the people on the USARS derby committee, all we could do was shake our heads and comment how unbelievably good Oly was at doing their thing. Even as it became apparent that the game was not going to be a close one, we were all pretty much in awe at what Oly’s 10 players—Psycho Babble, Tannibal Lector, Stella Borracha, Whamsday Adams, and all the rest—were doing out there on every single play.

Now, I’ve seen Oly play live before. Earlier this year, they beat the San Diego Derby Dolls (no relation to SDRD) on the banked track. Just a few months ago, I witnessed them win the WFTDA western regional tournament. So I’ve got a pretty good idea of what their players were capable of in different gameplay environments. Or at least, I thought I did.

Because what the USARS tournament showed me is that there’s an artificial limit placed on the more prevalent forms of the game. A team that’s really good can’t take advantage of their full goodness if the team they’re playing doesn’t let them use it by refusing to engage them. But in USARS rules, Oly was no longer confined of a 10-foot long piece of real estate in front of a stopped pack. Instead, Oly was freed from the shackles of forced-slow derby and was finally able to do what they do best:

Skate fast and play hard roller derby.

And it was fucking incredible to witness in person.

I’m glad I got to see it happen. Here’s hoping the next time I see it, it’ll be even better.

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Want to see something even more amazing? Check out the WRDN Facebook page for an extended comment about the incredible halftime show that happened during the San Diego-Oly final.