Battle on the Bank VI Diary: The Most Interesting Jam in the World

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. But this isn't about them.

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.

– – – – – – – – – –

In the last jam of their Saturday 30-minute semi-final game, Arizona found themselves down to San Diego by the score of 76-71. With 0:37 showing on the period clock, there appeared to be only enough time to for one final 60-second jam.

However, RDCL rules dictate that a quarter can only end when the period clock expires during an in-progress jam. This means if a jam is called off with any time on the period clock, even if it is one second, another full jam must be played to complete the game. In this case, if the jam takes 36 seconds or less, there would be one more jam; if the jam is 37 seconds or longer, it would be the last jam and the game would be over.

With that in mind, Arizona sent The Lap Dancer to the jammer line, with San Diego fielding Kung Pow Tina. Down by five points, but up 3-2 in the pack, the Hot Shots positioned their blockers on the start line in a way that suggested they were going with defense, defense, defense, hoping their jammer could get out alone against a thin San Diego blocker contingent and score a grand slam (or more) to avoid the loss.

(It must be mentioned that two jams prior, a referee error prematurely called off the jam and prevented the Hot Shots from probably picking up two more points. RDCL refs are some of the best in the business, but it was an unfortunate mistake that in all probability changed the dynamics of the last jam significantly; being down by 5 points on the last jam is a significantly different situation than being down by 3 points, as you can imagine.)

When the jam got underway, Arizona sent a blocker forward ahead of the pack, only to quickly drop back and use their blocker advantage to wall up in the rear and focus on preventing San Diego’s jammer from spoiling their comeback bid.

What unfolded next was quite possibly the most interesting jam I had ever seen live in the modern derby era.

Here is that jam. Focus on the period clock in the upper corner, as it quickly became Arizona’s enemy…and perhaps without them realizing it, their potential saving grace.

With an Arizona blocker getting tripped up at the start, that effectively left two 2-walls going into turn 2—Arizona in the back, San Diego in the front—to play defense and contain the jammers from getting out. With that much room to maneuver, it was pretty easy for jammers like Tina and Dancer to make their way through the pack as it inevitably spread out.

Unfortunately for the Hot Shots, Kung Pow Tina got out first for lead jammer. The Lap Dancer was right on her tail for Arizona, but since the lead jammer is always the jammer physically in the lead in RDCL play, San Diego had control of the jam and could end it at any time she was leading the jammer race.

This is where things started to get interesting.

.

Click here to see the full AZ/SD game. It was good!

Despite their advantage at this point, slim as it was, San Diego was caught in a tactical no-man’s land. With both jammers clear, 0:25 left in the game, and 48 seconds left in the jam, San Diego had to balance draining the clock to try and win the game and risking losing lead status and potentially losing the game, or at least giving Arizona another jam to work with.

On the one hand, Kung Pow could try to slow up Lap Dancer. but overdoing it could result in a pass and loss of ability to call off the jam. KPT could try entering the pack with Dancer right behind her, but getting blocked out of bounds would also prevent her from ending the jam (the lead jammer must be in-bounds to call off the jam in the RDCL) allowing Arizona a chance to score and enough time to play another jam. Or worse, Arizona might have even been able to get an extra pass in and win the game right then and there.

While San Diego had to figure out what to do on the fly, for Arizona the goal was less complicated. Once Tina escaped the pack and picked up the initial lead, it was—or at least, should have been—immediately clear to the Hot Shots that without lead status, their best and most realistic hope was to try and end the jam with any time left on the period clock, whether they gained or lost points, in the hopes of putting themselves in a much more favorable position in the next-and-final jam.

But the current situation wasn’t good for them. Kung Pow Tina was just burning clock so she could end the game without further hassle and The Lap Dancer was not fast enough to win back lead status on her own. Down by 5 points but with only 4 points immediately available in the pack, the result appeared inevitable.

This is where things started to get really interesting.

Without lead status, Arizona could not directly end the jam to extend the game. However, they were capable of ending the jam indirectly by forcing the San Diego jammer to do it for them.

Let me explain. Remember San Diego’s tactical options? They could be classified into two different categories: The Easy Way (let time expire, call off jam, win game) and The Hard Way (anything that gives Arizona a chance to extend or win the game). The Easy Way takes Arizona’s involvement from proceedings out of the equation completely. The Hard Way means Arizona will be able to get scoring passes and/or another jam to come back and try to take the win.

San Diego wanted to do things The Easy Way, of course. What Arizona needed to do was make San Diego to do things The Hard Way, the only way that would give them a chance to make a play and stay in the game. But with the jammer race not likely to force San Diego’s hand, the only other players available on the track to make them do it were the Arizona blockers.

If the Hot Shots could gain control of the pack and slow it down, the San Diego jammer would approach the pack with time left on the clock and have no choice but to do things The Hard Way, giving Arizona a chance, however small, at winning the game.

Since there is no better way to slow down the pack than to capture a goat and hit the brakes, the best possible strategy the Arizona blocking corps needed to use was to do just that.

And this is where things started getting absolutely fascinating.

Goating—the act of trapping a single opposing blocker behind a wall—is normally something a team does when their jammer is the only one out to score, allowing him or her to rack up the laps around a slow pack. But when both jammers are out on the jam with little between them, the strategy behind wanting to slow down the pack completely changes.

In this case, Arizona slowing the pack would have shortened the track distance Kung Pow Tina had to cover to reach the back of the pack, reducing the amount of time needed to catch up to it. San Diego wanted to burn clock without entering the pack, however, and the only way to do that within a shorter distance would be to compensate with a slower approach. In that case, KPT would have to forcefully slow down Lap Dancer to prevent them from having to enter the pack too early…but that would give Arizona a chance to swipe lead jammer status.

If matters couldn’t be settled with jammer-on-jammer action, the scoring players would enter an Arizona-advantaged pack with likely enough time remaining for another jam after the fact. But the risk in doing this, to the potential benefit of Arizona, is that it would allow Lap Dancer a much greater chance of picking up points off the lone goated blocker—3 points, in fact, when you factor in SD’s blocker penalty ghost points.

However, as the play developed, it turned out that Arizona’s last chance of at success the jam did not rest in the hands of a jammer. No, whether they would win or lose all actually came down to one Arizona blocker in the pack, here:

.cap

Once both jammers cleared the pack, Arizona’s success or failure in the jam rested on the success or failure of a single block, as circled here.

The blocker, Scarlett Knockout, had to contain and slow the last San Diego blocker behind her. Doing so would give the trailing Arizona blockers the opportunity to form a wall in front of the blocker, letting them slow the pack down enough to give them the chance they needed to extend the game. Failing to do so would allow the two San Diego blockers to slink the pack away, increasing its speed and giving the San Diego jammer the extra time and distance needed to drain the clock out in the open.

Unfortunately for the Hot Shots, Scarlett was not able to slow down the opposing half of the pack on her own. Once San Diego moved to the front, they were able to keep the pack moving fast—a rate of about 14 seconds a lap. This allowed their jammer to skate at a ridiculously fast 9½-second-per-lap rate for an astonishing 2½ laps, fast enough to comfortably keep the Arizona jammer in her wake and a distance long enough for the game clock to almost completely expire by the time the jammers got into scoring position.

Once they did, the writing was on the wall for Arizona. With one second left in the game, Lap Dancer had to take a desperate lunge past Kung Pow Tina to try and make something happen.

Something happened, alright: A back block penalty, which sent The Lap Dancer to the box and sealed the 80-71 victory for San Diego.

– – – – – – – – – –

Although Arizona lost this game, they would get their revenge in the loser’s bracket final by beating San Diego 128-112. A Pyrrhic victory, it turned out, as 13 out of 14 Arizona players were completely out of gas by the second half of the final against Los Angeles, a game they lost 262-63. The only Hot Shot with any jump in her step in the end was Goody Goody Blooddrop, playing in her final event before retiring from roller derby. She played like it and won tournament jammer MVP honors, leaving everything on—and off—the track.

However, despite coming second place, Arizona was not the second-best team at Battle on the Bank this year. “The Most Interesting Jam in the World,” as described above, showed exactly why.

In both of their contests against San Diego, Arizona had a very difficult time scoring in situations where they were first out of the pack with lead jammer, but with a small lead on the track over the trailing San Diego jammer. On the flip side, San Diego seemed to have more success in tight jammer races, scraping off minor points in places Arizona was unable to in similar situations.

Particularly in the 60-minute loser’s final, San Diego was very consistent, always maximizing their scoring when they had good opportunities to score and pushing out a good deal of points in less-favorable positions. Arizona had a lot of lead jammer situations slip away from them due to their blocking corps letting San Diego scoot to the front of the pack, forcing a defensive call-off as the San Diego jammers sometimes found themselves in better scoring position, despite not being the jammer in the lead.

The ‘Zonians also made some curious pack decisions, often dropping to the rear after the San Diego jammer cleared the pack, leaving their own jammer to get roughed up and slowed down—preventing her from getting through quickly in response. The “let’s drop to the back of the pack” strategy in particular was the one that put them out of position in the last jam of the winner’s semifinal game, as explained above, and doomed their hopes of a comeback victory there.

(Really, the only thing that allowed Arizona a chance to advance to the final was the fortunate timing of power jams. Sure, both teams had their fair share of them, and they were not always effective. But for all the trouble (in regards to game balance) 20- and 25-point power jams are in WFTDA play when normal jams usually score 4 to 9 points, it can be said that 10- and 15-point power jams in RDCL play are just as much trouble when regular jams score 2 or 3 points at a time. San Diego ran into that trouble at the wrong time, despite them looking like the stronger team.)

Arizona’s pack work, and often their lack of it, demonstrated that even if a team has a lot of skating experience or blocking prowess, if they are behind the times strategically, it’s going to come back to bite them eventually. The same could be said about any form of roller derby, naturally.

But the new RDCL rules environment has created a new kind of game—which is starting to resemble the old game—where almost all of the slow-game tactics simply do not work anymore. Not only do defenses need to worry about blocking jammers, but they now must also factor in how and when to block opposing blockers.

This change, which is not insignificant, creates three new considerations for packs to think about during regular jams.

The first is during the initial pass. With the (re)adoption of the fair and equal roller derby jam start, there is no way to form a solid 4-wall, or even a 3-wall, without the opposing team having something to say about it. With an absolute defense less likely, teams will now need to decide on whether or not to press the issue and force-form a wall, or spread out and commit to offensive blocking within different levels of the pack.

The second is the period between the completion of the initial pass and the start of the scoring pass. In the old RDCL rules (and current WFTDA rules) there tended to be a brief “reset” period in the pack where blockers often regather themselves, assess their situation, and then wall up and prepare for the scoring pass. But with close jammer races becoming more common, this lull can be detrimental to a team should they allow opposing blockers gain position, thereby giving them more options to score, defend, or change the speed of the pack whether they have lead status or not.

The third is during the scoring pass itself. In a tight jammer race, if you’re a lone blocker at the rear of the pack, you’re either an easy point (or points, if ghost points are available) or the reason your jammer isn’t able to score more points, being forced to call off the jam before the other team scores on you. Since it’s a lot easier keep blockers behind you than it is to get in front one, if a scoring-pass blocking strategy requires blockers to be biased toward the front of the pack, it’s a hell of a lot easier to have started off there in the first place.

If you watch the last jam video again, you’ll see where Arizona faulted on all three of these points.

On the initial pass, they let the San Diego blockers take the front of the pack (point 1) without bother entering turn 2. As both jammers broke clear, the two rear Arizona blockers dropped back and watched things happen in front of them (point 2), rather than staying active and trying to help their teammate contain. And during the scoring pass, the Arizona 3-wall at the rear completely ignored the two San Diego blockers as they continued to slink the pack forward; if it weren’t the last jam, San Diego could have easily dropped back to disrupt the wall (point 3), punching a hole for their jammer and potentially picking up 4 points with a quick call-off.

All of these things happened because Arizona’s blockers were over-focused on the San Diego jammer, sacrificing pack position for defense too early in the jam, only to find out later that it was too difficult to recover from that position in the fast pack that they allowed the other team to create.

Arizona is a good team, and these are things they should start correcting once they review the archived Battle on the Bank VI footage of their performance.

However, they should really take a look at the team that beat everyone on the weekend, the L.A. Derby Dolls. They are masters of blocker positioning and blocker-on-blocker engagement during all jam phases. They know not to over-do it on the initial pass or put themselves out of position on the scoring pass. They know how to make something happen in the pack during the transition period when they have to, instead of just waiting for something to happen.

And they’ve won the last two Battle on the Banks. How interesting.

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4 responses to this post.

  1. Enjoyed the article and agree with most of it – maybe the only disagreement being that to me all 14 Arizona skaters looked extremely exhausted in the championshiop, especially the jammers, which brings up something I will comment on shortly.

    First, in reference to Arizona’s blockers, you made one comment that really struck a major chord with me as I watched all their games also:

    “The ‘Zonians also made some curious pack decisions, often dropping to the rear after the San Diego jammer cleared the pack, leaving their own jammer to get roughed up and slowed down—preventing her from getting through quickly in response.”

    I noticed this same thing happening a lot, ESPECIALLY in the actual championship game against LA. There were countless times when an Arizona jammer would be stuck behind a wall of SD or LA skaters, after the opposing jammer had already gotten free, getting physically demolished as she’s trying to get through, only to have the AZ blockers skating a ways behind her doing literally nothing to help her. Sure, you need to play preventative defense in the game, but at the cost of leaving your jammer to fend for herself against a 3 or 4 wall of the best blockers in the business? And with the new RDCL rules, there is no point in slowing down to split the pack because you can still block in a no pack situation, so it made the consistent choice even more baffling. Or maybe the goal was to have the jammer push the blockers out of play so that they would then be forced to stop blocking her? Well that didn’t go so well against the quality of blockers they were facing, so why keep doing it endlessly? Especially when exhaustion was already a massive issue? You could see these jammers come back to the bench after these situations beaten to a pulp, hunched over, gasping for breath after trying to bust through these walls solo. Wouldn’t this be a sign that maybe you need to offer a bit more help out there or change strategy? Especially after the same situation repeating itself consistently? But it was not to be, I continually saw this even in the last quarter of the championship game when they were already losing by 200 points. And at that point is the potential of stopping the opposing jammer remotely worth the beating the jammer is then taking? Is it even at any point? It was painful and extremely frustrating to watch over the course of the weekend, culminating in that championship game.

    The question then needs to be asked what is the real issue? The blockers or the coaching? Because the sign of any good coach is the ability to make adjustments to game strategy based on what’s working and what isn’t – and that clearly wasn’t working. I would say the coaching would be more to blame at that point, because it’s their place to make those adjustments, and this issue happened all weekend. Still, I don’t think the blockers are free of blame either, the pivot and blockers should be able, and should have, made better decisions too based on what was actually happening on the track, as opposed to theory on how things would go.

    As a side note, I also found it interesting that someone who apparently is a guru of roller derby, Pitchit, was busy on the webcast going on and on about how the AZ jammers just need to do better. Um, it was EXTREMELY clear the jammers weren’t the issue in any of the AZ games, except for perhaps a few silly penalties or greedy attempts at extra points resulting in lost opportunities. Overall though, I give the jammers credit for even surviving both bouts on Sunday with the lack of blocker help.

    Which brings me to my second point – the tournament set-up is inherently flawed. There is no way that a team should be playing in a full length championship game AFTER just playing a full length game. The teams playing in the championship either should be decided by Saturday or have the first game very early Sunday and the championship late – so that the team has a good opportunity to rest up. As it was, Arizona had about an hour to rest between bouts, and I guarantee if that kind of schedule continues there will NEVER be a team that wins the championship other then the one who didn’t have to play both bouts. Personally I think it should be decided by Saturday so that both teams are fresh Sunday, which also has the added benefit of eliminating the excuse of being tired for a potential loss.

    Overall great blog entry, enjoyed reading it

    Reply

    • There were countless times when an Arizona jammer would be stuck behind a wall of SD or LA skaters, after the opposing jammer had already gotten free, getting physically demolished as she’s trying to get through, only to have the AZ blockers skating a ways behind her doing literally nothing to help her. Sure, you need to play preventative defense in the game, but at the cost of leaving your jammer to fend for herself against a 3 or 4 wall of the best blockers in the business? … The question then needs to be asked what is the real issue? The blockers or the coaching?

      I believe that the real real issue, generalizing, is a combination of bad habits and lack of abilities. When you spend the better part of two years (or in other rule sets, three or more years) being trained that passivity is beneficial, when the rules are changed to suddenly make it detrimental, it’s going to catch out a lot of players who might not be able to adjust to that quickly. The “reset” period or lull that I described is a perfect example of this, a bad habit that’s clearly been carried over from years of practice.

      To a lesser extent, you can blame a lack of knowing exactly how to assist a jammer in need, simply because the primary way so many teams have been trained to do over time is to split the pack to force the other team to bridge and weaken the front wall automatically. When that option goes away, the other options aren’t as well-practiced and therefore may not quickly come to mind as something that can be done. Arm whips, for example; blocker-blocker whips and jammer-to-blocker whips are something you rarely or never see, but are useful in many circumstances.

      So while it’d be easy to just pick out coaching or blocking as the problem, even the best coach would need time to get players to unlearn the dumb strategy stuff they relied on in the old rules. (Although, San Diego relied on that crap heavily, and they seemed to make the transition well.) Part of the reason why L.A. has been dominant this year is that they never went all the way down the sausage hole, as it were, and started using active offense strategies—known more simply as offense—as early as two years ago, starting on the intraleague level. Not because they absolutely had to, but because the extra options they created let them score in every situation, not just the safe and obvious ones.

      Wouldn’t this be a sign that maybe you need to offer a bit more help out there or change strategy? Especially after the same situation repeating itself consistently?

      Absolutely, and this leads into something I wasn’t able to work into my post. Once the opposing jammer clears the pack, there is only benefit to everyone on a team to switch to offense and assist their jammer getting out. Doing this will always speed the pack up, which would result in the opposing jammer needing to skate longer to reach scoring position, which therefore gives the assisting team more time to break their jammer out. It also saves the wear and tear on the jammer rotation, obviously.

      Fast packs always help the defense. This isn’t something that needs to be taught or coached to players, because it’s blatantly obvious to a blocker that it’s easier to keep someone behind you if you’re going faster than they are. Now that teams have the ability to make packs speed up (sort of) they’ll find this out really quickly and apply it to all phases of play. Assisting a late jammer will be one of those situations.

      Which brings me to my second point – the tournament set-up is inherently flawed. There is no way that a team should be playing in a full length championship game AFTER just playing a full length game.

      Yes, and I think the RDCL underestimated how much energy a game takes now that everyone on the track actually needs to work their butts off for the full 60 minutes. I hope they do something about that for BotB VII, wherever they hold it.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Don't fear the Mayhem on 7 July 2013 at 3:41 pm

    This is great. Both comments were spot on.

    Since we are on the topic of AZ coaching ability:

    This is what happens when you solely rest all decision making on the coach and do not allow your team captain (aka the voice of the team) to have any input. Due to an injury during a playoff bout, the Hot Shot’s captain was forced to sit sidelined and watch her team skate BOTB. Even during the halftime breaks she expressed her concerns that the jammers were not getting the help they needed and that a new strategy should be played but was shot down.

    The 2 biggest flaws prior to the tournament for AZDD:

    1. Relinquished the Hot Shots Captain’s ability to lead the team. ALL decisions would now be left to the coach. This was based on a bout prior to BOTB where the AZDD team captain was blamed for the 70 pt loss against LADD. Keep in mind AZDD managed to out play leagues like Bay Area, Rose City, Charm, SDDD, going against LADD with her in charge.

    2. The coach not letting key players skate on the Hot Shots knowing they where going into this tournament short on skilled players all because of a personal vendetta with his home leagues.

    And get this – for his reward (yes he gets all the credit for the Hot Shots 2nd place finish) they rewrote the league policy the captain and the coach:

    CAPTAIN
    Organize the team fundraisers
    Team building off the track
    Track Attendance
    Develop policies
    SUPPORT THE COACHES

    COACH
    Will hold, run tryouts and pick the team.
    Pick the rosters and write the lineups
    Develop and teach strategy
    Run practice

    When did the captain become a secretary to the coach?

    Why do you fear Mayhem?

    And didn’t you just break the first rule of roller derby

    Reply

  3. Did the millions (AND THE MILLIONS!) of derby fans clear out before LADD did the championship pic, or……………

    Reply

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