It’s a good news, bad news situation for USA Roller Sports Roller Derby.
The good news: More teams are interested in playing games under USARS roller derby rules, both interleague and locally. Those that are are almost universally glowing about them. Overall, games are more competitive than last year. USARS is starting to have more of a presence at major derby events like RollerCon. Well known, championship-caliber teams are ready to compete for recognized national titles.
The bad news: A lot of people do not yet understand (or flat-out dislike) the type of roller derby USARS wants to promote. USARS itself still has some major kinks to work out of its rule set, particularly those that help make for boring games. USARS is still is looked upon with animosity within the greater roller derby community. Oh, and in only its second year, regional tournament participation is down.
Whether the positive or the negatives will win out, USARS is still plugging away at building up and offering its version of roller derby to the masses. Realistically, it is too early to say how it is doing either way, as it is still early days for the governing body. But that does not mean we can’t review what it has done lately, during its regional tournament season in August and what is in store for its second national championship tournament this weekend.
So let’s look back to how USARS roller derby has been going along, with its ups and its and downs. But before the playoff season officially began, USARS managed to land an invite to the biggest roller derby party there is on the eve of its first regional tournament.
The RollerCon Game
Since it started its roller derby program in earnest, USARS wanted more of a presence at RollerCon than just a dinky booth that gave away free water bottles and the occasional informational pamphlet. It wanted to feature a game played under its rule set.
Ultimately, USARS got one for RollerCon 2013—barely. The group was not able to secure a spot initially, but it lucked-out when a previously scheduled full-length game was cancelled. USARS swooped in and picked up the time slot.
Never mind it was the slot opposite the Vagine Regime-Caulksuckers showcase in the main challenge hall, the most popular game of the weekend. That didn’t prevent around 300 derbyfolk from filtering in and out of the USARS room during the hour-long bout…including some that might have had more than a passing interest in the proceedings.
But What people saw at RollerCon was something not unlike a lot of early USARS-rules games: A complete and utter mess.
Many skaters were random drop-ins who had never seen USARS rules before the game, and therefore did not realize that they actually had to block the opposing team in order to accomplish anything. By then, it was already too late to slow down a too-fast pack. The other team did not help matters by sprinting away from their own jammer while she had lead, not registering that they had to slow the pack down to earn a scoring chance.
Making a messy situation worse, most of the ref crew learned more about the USARS refereeing experience with each passing official timeout. NSOs were not completely aware of USARS penalty box procedures, leading to a weird situation where a player was made to sit on the wrong penalty bench for a minute. The resulting delays caused the game overshoot its allotted time, much to the chagrin of the players waiting for their scheduled challenge bout in the same room.
The game did have a few “woah” moments—referees leapt over a lot of players sliding out out after taking hard blocks at high speed—but overall the USARS showcase at RollerCon was certainly not the best showcase for the type of roller derby USARS is trying to build upon.
Even so, there was a prevailing curiosity from the virgin onlookers. So you can actually skate to play roller derby? You mean the pivot actually does something? (During the game, the announcers humorously led the crowd on a little dance to demonstrate how the pivot breaks.) This is really fast! Although the game was a train wreck, for many it seemed like they were watching a train wreck mere moments after witnessing the invention of the train.
Reactions to USARS style of derby were mixed. Some liked it despite the obvious rough edges…
…while some did not like it as it was presented.
Some skaters liked it enough to pop by the USARS booth after the game, which was as busy as it was all weekend. But it goes without saying that the interest level and presence of USARS at RollerCon was dwarfed by that of the WFTDA, its showcase bouts, and all the games played there under WFTDA rules. USARS is starting to poke its head in the door, though, and it confirmed to me that it is going to be back at RollerCon next year with at least a fully-fledged showcase bout.
Whether it continues to keep coming after that will have everything to do with how many more players and teams continue to show interest towards its version of roller derby. Drumming up publicity at RollerCon does not mean much if the number of players and teams under the USARS umbrella is not growing. While it can boast a healthy amount of derby leagues holding USARS club charters, the only true gauge of progress USARS has at this point is the number of teams that are participating in its regional and national roller derby tournaments, since it is going to all the trouble setting them up.
Which, when comparing its first year last year to its second year this year, is trending up or down depending on how you look at it.
More or Less
The 2012 USARS regional tournament season was held throughout October, with its national championship in December. For 2013 it was moved up to an August/October schedule to accommodate the requests of the teams that participated last year. This, one would assume, make it easier for leagues to participate and therefore give more of them a chance to enter.
That did not happen. In its inaugural year, 16 teams entered into four regional tournaments. This year, only 15 entered into three regionals, with one dropping out last-minute to bring the actual total down to 14 teams. Worse, only one of the three tournaments was streamed live online, while the other two had a scant amount of archival footage uploaded. Last year, all four regional weekends were live-streamed in at least some capacity. Both of these points mark a step down for USARS, which can’t very well advertise itself as a derby alternative if there is no way for people to see it.
On the other hand, they are only two data points on a line that will take a while to chart out completely. A small regression now may not mean anything if the number only grows from this point forward. The level of participation next year will be critical in determining the overall challenge the group will face in seeding a long-term roller derby alternative, after which there should be enough data to fairly judge how USARS is doing from A to Z. But there are some positives it can take away from its 2013 regional season.
One of the biggest is how the Oly Rollers switching to USARS from the WFTDA this year has helped the USARS cause in 2013. Only three teams participated in the Seattle-area regional in 2012, but this year at least seven showed interest. Though only six wound up participating, that is a significant growth spurt in a region where skating sports have traditionally been popular.
The Oly influence is most obvious in two area teams, where members of its 2009 WFTDA Champion squad have reappeared on other rosters. Sisters D-Bomb and Blonde an Bitchin’, still sporting covered bicycle helmets, are back in roller derby playing USARS with Port T’Orchard (Port Orchard, Wash.). Multiple-time world champion speed skater Julie Glass—Team USA Roller Derby player Atomatrix to the rest of us—was rostered with Antagonist Roller Derby (Seattle, Wash.), though she will not be making an appearance at Nationals.
But just because players are leaving Oly for greener pastures does not mean players from outside Olympia are not
flying driving in from certain other green pastures to make a run at a national championship.
On the track, USARS should be moderately pleased with how things are shaking out. Despite having fewer participating teams, including several new teams with very little or no USARS bouting experience, the level of competition has improved quite a bit from the first crack at it last year.
The first bit of good news: No one forfeited a game!
Even better news: The games actually being played are more competitive overall. Ignoring the three forfeited/incomplete regional games last year, the average margin of victory across 21 games was over 120 points, with more than half of the games finishing with margins 100 points or greater. The first USARS rule set, rife with runaway pack situations, only made those boring blowouts even more boring to watch.
The first major rules revision and 24 more USARS regional tournament games has made a huge difference in 2013. With whirlpool packs less common, the average points spread was down to 100 and more than half the games saw points spreads of less than 75 points. There were a lot more nail-biting finishes as well, with four games ending with scores within 20 points; three of those came down to the final jam and two were decided by a single point.
Considering that this is still only the second season for USARS roller derby, that is not too shabby. Sure, there was the occasional horrible blowout (Oly Rollers 321, Underground DL 3), but that is a problem across all of roller derby; the same issue still exists in top-level WFTDA (Gotham 545, Oklahoma 21) and MRDA (Your Mom 330, Deep Valley 51) tournament play. But it’s always good to see tighter competition regardless of their sanction.
In any event, USARS is no doubt disappointed by the turnout for its regional tournaments this year. Yet there are signs that would appear to indicate that it has a lot to look forward to. What has happened for its national championship is probably the most surprising good news USARS has had to date (see below). But even though its regional season seems as if it has had a lesser impact on derby from the outside, looking inside there may be more going on that meets the eye.
While watching what would turn out to be the best game of the 2013 USARS regional tournament season, from the Region 2 qualifier in Tulsa, Okla., I began to suspect something was amiss.
The target of my attention was B-Witch, a skater for the hometown Tulsa Derby League. Wearing #666 in neon green, she was quick on her skates and carried herself in a way to be noticeable every time she went up to the line to jam. Those are good qualities to have, the same that many good skaters have. Yet there was something about her in particular that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
While pondering over this, I noticed that Tulsa was beginning to open up a lead against the Chicago Red Hots, a newly formed USARS club. Through a combination of good team defense and some jammer-breakout miscalculations by Chicago, Tulsa was up 50-29 by halftime.
The intermission seemed to help the Chicago squad, though, which came storming back in the first ten minutes of the 2nd period to draw level with Tulsa. Seven minutes later, they held an 11-point lead. Only then did the Tulsa defense recover and begin to slow down Chicago enough for their jammers and pivots to begin to go to work, picking off points to tighten the gap back up.
During this Tulsa counter-run, B-Witch came up to the line and did something that made me take notice of her again.
On the verge of breaking out of the pack, she got crunched to the inside by a forward Chicago blocker. Just as she was reacting to the impact, she got sideswiped from the inside by another Chicago blocker pressing forward in support. Absorbing two big shots, she stayed on her skates and nabbed lead jammer. Though her defense let her down and no points were scored on the jam, I was impressed.
As was the camera , which zoomed in to get a close shot of her. There, the notion of something being not quite right returned to me. I wondered aloud: She looks awfully young, doesn’t she?
The thought escaped me again as Tulsa finished a mini-comeback, tying the score at 70 with less than five minutes left in the game. The stage was set for a grandstand finish.
Next jam up, Chicago sent out their top skater, Kola Loka (remember her?) against that bewitching B-Witch, who darted through the pack and almost got out for lead. Almost, because Red Hots pivot Cruel Whip landed a perfect hip check on the Tulsa jammer, causing her to slide out at the exit of turn 4. This let Kola Loka pick up lead status by the end of the first lap.
However, without someone to cover the front of the pack for Chicago (Cruel Whip recycled B-Witch to the rear) the Tulsa pivot was free to break and chase immediately. This only gave Kola a very small window of opportunity, about one second, with which to score.
But it was plenty for Kola, who picked up 2 points on a super-gutsy, extra-risky apex jump—the kind of gusty, risky maneuver that might cause a roller derby fan to make loud noises and disturb others in adjacent rooms. (In USARS, a jammer cannot call off the jam if out of bounds, leaving them liable to lose lead status and points to the other team if they miss the jump.)
The loud noises (and profuse apologies to the neighbors) continued into the dying minutes of the game as Tulsa responded with a 2-pointer of their own to tie the game at 72.
Both benches were done playing around. Kola Loka and the #1 jammer for Tulsa, Criminally Insane, did not bother coming back to the bench for the last few minutes. After two tense scoreless jams, the final play saw Kola break out with a 2-second lead over the Tulsa jammer, more than enough time to score the winning point.
Score it she did—except she waited too long to call off the jam, allowing Criminally Insane to pass a Chicago blocker. Both teams scored one on the track, but an earlier Chicago penalty gave Tulsa an extra box point and the winning point, 74-73.
This was a really exciting game. Though the rematch in the regional final was not—Tulsa skated around a tired Chicago team to an 84-30 victory—by then I had been able to solve the riddle that was B-Witch:
She was a 16-year old junior skater rostered with the adults for the tournament.
Four months ago, USARS announced that it would allow any chartered USARS club to roster a junior skater, aged 14-17, on a senior team, provided all parties involved (skater, team, coaches, parents, state regulations, etc.) were okay with it. Although this change was made to merely align the USARS roller derby policy to the international standard other roller sports under the USARS/FIRS wing, it was met with much controversy within the roller derby community. Concerns were raised about it being too dangerous, over insurance and liabilities, and fear of older players throwing their weight around against minors and the potential repercussions that could carry.
I had some reservations about this myself, in fact. But in hindsight, they seem misguided. Skipping the fact that USARS would never authorize a program like this without ensuring everything was kosher in all scenarios, after I realized what was really going on during the one-point Chicago-Tulsa game, I learned all I needed to know.
The evidence was staring me straight in the face (She looks awfully young, doesn’t she?) but I never thought to consider that a minor was playing in the game. She was getting creamed and clobbered like everyone else, yet she was still holding her own. Not only that, she was contributing points to the Tulsa tally—points they would have lost the game without.
It turns out that B-Witch was not the only junior player playing during the USARS regional season. Choke-Her, also from the Tulsa juniors program, was on their roster that same weekend. In the Seattle regional, Antagonist Roller Derby added at least two juniors from the I-5 Rollergirls to their full charter. An unofficial count shows that there were at least a half-dozen players aged 17 or younger skating USARS with the big girls.
But I did not realize this until after it was mentioned to me. If I knew about it beforehand, I would have had a harder time believing it.
As the last game of the weekend wrapped up in Tulsa, B-Witch was singled out for being an underage overachiever. Shortly thereafter, all the skaters on the track, from both teams, began to erupt in a chant of “Future! Future!” in an acknowledgment of her achievements, and presumably for all the up-and-coming junior skaters already in USARS-affiliated roller skating and roller derby programs.
B-Witch and the other juniors that qualified for USARS Nationals with their teams will be there, skating with both the full adult roster and in the special USARS juniors exhibition game that will happen during the weekend. The juniors games at 2012 Nationals were sensational, and those were skated by juniors that did not yet have the ability to graduate onto an adult team early. Now that the opportunity is there, it will be worth watching to see how many more juniors take it.
There are many potential pitfalls ahead—perhaps a player is pushed ahead too soon, or a severe injury causes second-thoughts about the program from those thinking of taking advantage of it. But if done right, this could be a wonderful chance for roller derby to become even stronger and more competitive in the future.
The Definition of Insanity
There were a few other close contests during the regional season. Another game where one point was the difference was for third place in the same region, where the Tall City Roller Betties (Odessa, Texas) held off Alabama Roller Derby (Birmingham, Ala.) 63-62 to advance to the national championship.
Results do not get any closer than that. However, keeping in mind that this was a full 60-minute game, when the final score only added up to 125 total points—with just 50 points scored in the second half—it was a game that was somewhat tough to watch owing to the number of scoreless jams. Not to say there can’t be intriguing and exciting stretches of scoreless gameplay, but it definitely starts to wear thin when it keeps happening, for the same reasons.
Which brings us to another nail-biting finish, the third-place game in Region 2 (Southwest) between High Country Mountain (Sonora, Calif.) and Suburban Legends (Merced, Calif.). The finale was indeed exciting, since either team could have skated away with the victory in the last jam. With a two-pass cushion to work with, Suburban dropped a 4-0 clincher to walk away with an 11-point victory and qualify them for USARS Nationals.
Your final score: Suburban Legends 48, High Country Mountain 37.
Yes, you read that right. In a full 60 minute game, only 85 total points were scored.
Low-scoring defensive battles are one thing. But with neither team able to hit 50 points, there was little they needed to defend against. The game featured 34 scoreless jams (against 23 scoring jams), including a 12-jam run in the second half with only one scoring play. That is a lot of double goose-eggs.
Many of these 0-0 jams ended in the way they often do when inexperienced players and teams play under active pivot rules: After lead jammer is established, the opposing pivot breaks and chases from the front of the pack. The lead jammer then immediately calls off the jam for fear of getting passed and losing lead status to the other team.
This happened in virtually every single scoreless jam, without either team ever attempting to loop back around into scoring position. And it kept happening. And happening. And happening. And happening.
They say that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Yet both teams continued to call it off mere moments after earning lead on the jam, over and over again, as if that would somehow change the fact that neither of them were scoring points. In the case of High Country Mountain especially, which needed to start taking some risks to score points—which were obviously at a premium—to get back in the game.
Teams happy to end so many jams in this fashion (or play under a set or rules that would encourage such a bonkers practice) might be considered a bit crazy.
Under optimal circumstances, this is absolutely true. But in this case, there was a reasonable explanation for the odd behavior: Both teams shot so many blanks in this game because they did not have much ammo to work with.
High Country and Suburban had but a few competent skaters between them. If they were on the bench or skating tired, they could not do anything meaningful on offense or defense. Once the pack got up to speed, it was pretty much a guarantee that it would stay fast as the jammers struggled to break away from a fast pack that struggled to slow back down.
This was not to say both teams were not working their butts off on every jam. They were, of course. This is also not to say that the teams were not familiar with basic USARS strategy. A lot of smart calls were coming from the team benches, and in the handful of jams where both teams had their wits about them, there were some pretty good blocking and scoring plays.
But given the limited skating skills and endurance the teams collectively had at their disposal, the only thing the blockers could do effectively was skate fast and turn left. The jammers were unable to do much more than tire themselves out on the initial pass and be easy pickings for the pivots waiting to pursue. And even if the teams were aware of counter-pivot strategies, they are not the easiest things to pull off without a lot of intuition and experience.
So instead, the teams were doing the one and only thing they were comfortable and/or capable doing at speed: Pray something happens. Nothing did, which is why there was a roller derby game where almost nothing of significance happened in the last 20 minutes.
This is a situation that USARS is going to have to weigh for future participation in its version of roller derby. Last year’s inaugural regional tournaments were like a bug zapper, with many players and teams going into it dropping out like flies. They featured forfeits, injuries, and teams in way over their heads. This may have been a contributing factor as to why some teams chose not to come back for seconds this year. And who could blame them?
There’s no beating around the bush about it: USARS roller derby is a very difficult game to play. Even with a smoothing out of the rules, it is not something that beginners will be able to jump into and expect do well at immediately, even against equal competition.
But maybe, that’s okay.
As much as the style of roller derby that USARS is trying to build up may chew skaters up and spit them out on the lower end of the spectrum, it may simultaneously be the ultimate test for the true athletes and exactly what roller derby needs to move up to the next level.
Make no mistake, tuning down the difficulty of a game to make it accessible to more people is a good and vitally important to the growth and health of the sport, as to introduce youngsters and newbies to it. (For example: Tee-ball graduates players into real baseball.) But there will come a point where players wanting to take another step up will have to get out of the kiddie pool and start learning how to swim in the deep end.
Doing this will inevitably leave some behind. But those that make it can help spearhead future growth in the game through training, coaching, promotion, and notoriety, among other things.
Of course, the danger with this idea is if the roller derby is made too difficult, too complicated, or too impractical to compete in, no one will buy into it over the long run and it will go nowhere fast. USARS can tout its version of roller derby all it wants, but if there are not enough people playing it now or not enough juniors in the pipeline interested in it for the future, then it will take on water and sink.
The potential upside is huge, though. USARS would be insane not to try to reach for the stars, because there is little downside. The WFTDA and MRDA will (presumably) always be there to provide a roller derby option to anyone that wishes to play it their way, so the worst that can happen is that nothing changes from the status quo. With derby starting to see the light in more international locales, that is a status quo which is pretty damn good.
But if USARS thinks it can help make it even better, it will have to see how lower-tier teams like Suburban Legends and High Country Mountain handle its version of roller derby next year and in the years beyond, should they join or stay with it. If we consider roller derby players athletes—as do the players themselves—then they will do what they need to do to skate well enough to play the USARS game and execute its strategies more effectively. If not, that’s cool. There are other options available.
There was a moment from this game that stayed with me long after the regional tournaments were completed. A High Country Mountain jammer, after hitting her hips to end yet another 0-0 exercise in futility, coasted back to her bench and shook her head at her coach. “There was nothing I could do,” she said.
Then and there, perhaps. But maybe, if she is crazy enough to keep at it, there may very well come a point in her roller derby career where she will start believing there is nothing she can’t do.
The 2013 USARS Roller Derby National Championships
The second USA Roller Sports roller derby national championship tournament will happen this weekend, October 25-27, at the Cox Business Center in Tulsa, Okla.
The first national tournament, held last year in Fresno, Calif., saw eight teams skate for the inaugural Seltzer Cup trophy. But with fewer teams participating at regionals this season, it is not surprising that that total was not matched in 2013.
Actually, the number has gone up: There are 12 teams participating at USARS nationals this year.
USARS managed to pull this off despite only having eight qualifying teams make it to Oklahoma. But those eight are just the women’s teams—three men’s roller derby teams will be competing in a parallel tournament for their own title, marking the first time that men and women will be together at the same event under the same sanction competing for equally recognized roller derby national championships. Just for good measure, there will be a juniors exhibition game on Sunday, which means all swaths of derby are going to be under one roof during the same weekend.
Starting on the women’s side, the former WFTDA/reigning USARS champion Oly Rollers are back to defend their title(s) against a mix of familiar foes and new faces. Another Oly sweep is inevitable, however, as the only resistance they might have on the way to the championship final will be against either Chicago or Antagonist Roller Derby, teams they have previously defeated easily in regional and interleague play. Tall City will have the tall order of facing Oly in the first game of the weekend.
The other half of the bracket looks somewhat less predictable. The Port City Roller Girls (Stockton, Calif.) looked much stronger in their regional tournament this year than last, though a thinner field and a weaker San Diego Roller Derby, might have helped with that. (SDRD qualified for nationals, but was unable to defend their 2012 national silver medal placing due to financial considerations.)
Port City and Port T’Orchard could produce the closest game of Friday, and the winner of that contest may move on to the closest (women’s) game on Saturday. Barring catastrophe, Tulsa should handle Suburban Legends without incident, creating another potentially close game against one of the Ports, much like the Port City-Tulsa contest at nationals last year.
Of the seven women’s teams in the field, Tulsa may be the only one with a chance to put on a competitive showing against the Oly Rollers. Or better said, Tulsa is the best remaining team in the field that Oly hasn’t yet torn a new one. Oly is just so damn good at the faster, more difficult USARS style of roller derby that it will probably be a while before another team can challenge them over the course of a full 60-minute game. But that is not going to stop everyone else from trying.
While there is an all-but-official championship winner in the women’s bracket, places 2-8 are still very much up for grabs. Also up for grabs is a championship for the men, and the three teams that USARS has invited to participate in it is a significant story in and of itself.
The host league also has a men’s derby team, the Tulsa Derby Militia., that will be defending their home turf against extremely tough competition. Oly, not content with dominating in most things they do, have added a new men’s team, the Oly Warriors, to try and dominate some more. The Warriors are full of skating talent from the greater Washington area, including many recognizable players from the Puget Sound Outcasts of the MRDA.
The third and final team in the men’s field? None other than the 2012 and newly re-crowned 2013 Men’s Roller Derby Association champions, Your Mom Men’s Roller Derby.
Your Mom arguably holds the title of “Best Roller Derby Team on the Planet,” having little trouble taking out their competition at MRDA Championships. In the final, they outscored the New York Shock Exchange (no slouches themselves) by a score of 249-130—despite committing 44 total penalties. Not only that, they beat the seemingly unbeatable Gotham Girls in a scrimmage earlier this year by a stunning margin, blowing Gotham out as badly a Gotham blows out everyone else. And this was after gifting Gotham twice the number of power jams!
That Your Mom can dominate against the top tier of roller derby while riding the pine in the penalty box at a high rate is just plain ridiculous. However, they are able to get away with this because of the WFTDA/MRDA rules environment, where having a full team of blockers on the track is less important than engaging in extreme pack manipulation, having great jammers, and pulling out huge power jams. Your Mom can tick off those last three boxes with a chisel and hammer.
Which is why their appearance in Tulsa this weekend, and the men’s tournament in general, will make for intriguing viewing. In the USARS game, blocker penalties can be just as bad for a team as a jammer or pivot getting sent off. If Your Mom continues losing players to the box at a high rate, they may find that they will not get away with it, leaving them susceptible to an upset. On the other hand, many of their penalties at MRDA Championships happened in stopped/reverse packs or as a side-effect of hyper-restrictive pack rules. These things will not be seen at USARS Championships, so they may be able to play as they always do without getting whistled off the track for ticky-tack offenses.
Seeing the exact same team (almost two teams, if you look at Puget Sound and the Oly Warriors having a somewhat similar roster) play at a high level under two different rule sets on consecutive weekends should make for an interesting compare and contrast opportunity. It should also give USARS another proof-of-concept milestone to see if the same ruleset works just as well with the guys as it does with the girls. Finally, it will make for one last stress test on its 2013 rules as it looks to shore up improvements for its 2014 revision, for which it has already announced a testing beta for proposals to eliminate runaway packs without introducing passivity to offenses.
It will also be the best opportunity for people to check out USARS roller derby. All 17 tournament games will be streamed live on Derby News Network, starting this Friday, October 25, at 11:00 a.m. ET. The men’s games will start on Saturday, and a juniors exhibition will preface the men’s and women’s finals on Sunday. The full schedule and other info is available at the USARS tournament website.