Heading into Battle on the Bank this year, there was little doubt that the L.A. Derby Dolls and their Ri-Ettes all-star team were the runaway favorites to repeat as banked track champs. Having destroyed both their closest rivals earlier in the year, the San Diego Derby Dolls Wildfires and the Arizona Derby Dames Hot Shots, Los Angeles did not have have much in the way of resistance to claim the title for the second straight year.
And so they did.
The L.A. Derby Dolls, winners of three out of six Battle on the Bank tournaments and two in a row. That’s great and all, but this story isn’t about them.
Despite the winner being a foregone conclusion, there was still a lot to look forward to a few steps lower on the bracket.
At the bottom, the Sugartown Rollergirls and Penn-Jersey Roller Derby got their first taste of the RDCL national tournament. In the middle, Tilted Thunder and the OC Rollergirls showed that they are not too far off from competing for the podium, putting in a good showing against the top teams after putting on a great show against each other. And off to the side, the juniors of the RDCL demonstrated that it won’t be long until they replace the players occupying their eventual spots on the senior rosters.
But back to the top steps. Though San Diego was seeded ahead of Arizona, it wasn’t an easy pick to say who would overcome the other on the way to the finals. But it was all but certain that which ever one did would lose to L.A. in the finals, making the battle between them a race for second place.
The double-elimination format of the tournament virtually ensured both teams would face each other twice: Once in a 30-minute game in the winners’ bracket on Saturday, and again in a full tilt the next day for a place in the grand final.
Thank goodness they did. The two AZ/SD games, by a fair margin, featured the most engaging, most fascinating, most exciting roller derby I have seen at Battle on the Bank out of the four editions I have attended. Dare I say, it was the most compelling action I have seen in the Doll Factory in two or three years—a period which includes all-star appearances by Gotham, Rocky Mountain, Team Legit, and Team Bionic, among many other top-tier teams that have rolled through in that time.
A bold statement, that, but there are numbers to back it up. In ninety total minutes of gameplay between the two teams, leads larger than 20 points were a short-lived luxury. Sustaining a low double-digit lead was about as good as either team could manage throughout. In the 60-minute semifinal game, teams were averaging less than 2 points each per jam. Two! Factor out power jams, and it was even closer.
Close scores are one thing, but with the 2013 RDCL rules having almost eliminated “cheap” points gifted to teams during goating and power jam situations, it was literally back to the case of every point mattering and every point needing to be fought for tooth-and-nail.
The sausage non-engagement tactic has, for all intents and purposes, been eliminated in the new rules. Front-loaded defenses were at a formidable advantage, forcing both teams to engage and assist offensively to break through. Packs were moving at a reasonable speed, allowing a defense trapped ahead of a goat time to lock on to, match speed with, and slow down an opposing jammer wanting to complete a pass, making goating itself less effective and no longer an easy play to complete a full pass.
This restored competitive balance to gameplay, but it also created a most exciting side-effect. If two equal teams both have an equal chance to play defense, are equally proficient at playing offense in the pack, and have jammers of equal speed and skill levels, odds are that both jammers are going to frequently complete their initial pass equally—or simultaneously, as it were.
That is exactly what happened in the Arizona/San Diego games. I don’t have an exact number, but I can almost guarantee that their games saw the highest number of close double-jammer breakouts all weekend, by a fair margin. In fact, a good percentage of jams had jammers within a quarter-track of each other or closer after completing the initial pass, leading to a hard and fast jammer race back to the rear of the pack. This often led to low-score, and even no-score jams, but not for a lack of action.
As both teams began to realize that uncontested scoring passes were rare, the only thing they could do was gain every millisecond of advantage they possibly could with the jammer race on the track and against each other in the pack to secure a favorable position for the scoring pass. The AZ/SD games at Battle on the Bank were brilliant examples this kind of hold-your-breath gameplay.
However, they also showed clear signs that the strategy behind jammer-race contested scoring passes is yet-to-be discovered by many teams in roller derby, not just those in the RDCL.
There was one jam in particular that demonstrated this.