by Bob Geary
DORTON ARENA/ RALEIGH—Your (our) Carolina Rollergirls put on a great show this weekend, playing host to the Women's Flat Track Derby Association's Eastern Regional tournament at Dorton Arena in Raleigh. The home team, unfortunately, was upset in the opening round Friday night by Boston, which cost them any chance to advance to the nationals in November. They bounced back Saturday to drub the team from Virginia, and on Sunday grabbed 5th place (out of 10 teams) with a convincing win over the Providence, Rhode Island club.
"What happened Friday was a big surprise to us," said Pink Slip, the skater a.k.a. Laura Slipsky, a Raleigh graphic designer. "After that, I think we all realized we had to pull together and do what we always do -- do what we practice -- and play our own game."
Boston, meanwhile, proved to be the cinderella team of the tournament. The Derby Dames upset Charm City (Baltimore) to finish third, behind Philadelphia and New York -- top three advance to the nationals, scheduled for November in Philly. (Correction: An earlier version of this, based on my misreading of the WFTDA website, said Boston was the regional champion. h/t: Hydra.)
This was your correspondent's first time at an R'girls event -- the first time, actually, that I've seen roller derby since the olden days on New York TV, where the tracks were banked, the villains dirty, the stars clean as snow white, and it was all, ah, predetermined. (Fixed.) But there's nothing fake -- other than the skaters' names -- about these new flat-track events. The women still skate hard, and they battle for position as before, but the officiating -- at least in the two games I saw -- is excellent, which means you win based on speed, strength, strategy and effort. In other words, it's a helluva sport, fast and gritty, and it's a lot of fun to watch. Regular-season games at Dorton draw an average of 1,400 fans, I'm told.
I missed the Rollergirls' opening bout Friday against the Boston Derby Dames, a team our side defeated by two points last year to advance to the nationals. We'd beaten them again -- by a single point -- earlier this season. Thus, the Rollergirls were seeded 4th in the tournament, and Boston 5th, tracking their WFTDA rankings. (These are all league All-Start teams; the rankings are by league.) So it was a shocker when Boston manhandled our side, as it were, in a 112-40 blowout.
On Saturday, I arrived in time to see us do worse to the Dominion (VA) Derby Girls, one of the four unseeded (i.e., lowest--ranked) teams in the field. Our Rollergirls looked unstoppable in a 252-44 rout, although I was told by Roxy Rockett (in real life she's Brandy Sheppard, a veteran skater who is eight months pregnant at present) that they still weren't skating their best. Watching them on Sunday defeat the 6th seeded Providence Derby All-Stars 125 to 78, I think I saw her point: Providence brought some good skaters, but the Rollergirls' defense was much better than the day before -- more effort, perhaps, but mainly a better job of team blocking. Or so it seemed to me.
My grasp of the game remains pretty shaky, so I won't attempt to explain it except to say that on each team, one skater (called the jammer) can score and the four others are her blockers, screening for her while simultaneously trying to impede the other side's jammer, either directly -- by staying in front of her -- or by bumping her own blockers into her.
Bumping is allowed, but pushing off isn't -- push-offs and other violations (holding, tripping) result in players going to the penalty box for varying periods, leaving their side short-handed on the track.
The two jammers start each "jam" -- think rounds, as in boxing -- behind the other eight (the pack). Points are registered when a jammer breaks through the pack, laps the field and breaks through again, passing opposition skaters a second time -- one point for each opponent passed.
The skaters perform in shifts -- think hockey -- going all-out for two or three minutes and then heading for the bench to rest. The jammers need speed and agility, the blockers agility and some size -- think football. Teamwork and timing count for a lot.
Best if I stop there.
According to Pink Slip, this has been a rebuilding year for the Rollergirls, who lost several top players due to pregnancies, job changes, moves, etcetera. The team/league is in its sixth year -- at the start, in February of 2004, it was one of the WFTDA's five original organizations; today, the WFTDA lists 40 member leagues in four regions around the country.
The Rollergirls are always looking to add skaters, Pink Slip said, and holds tryouts periodically. Check the Web site for details. Attitude counts more than skill, at least initially. (There's a "B" team, intra-league play, and there's also "Fresh Meat," she explained.) "Maybe they haven't skated before, maybe they haven't skated since they were 11. Nobody grows up playing roller derby, so everybody has to learn. And we're here to teach them."
On the other hand, they practice five days a week. These Rollergirls are good because they're serious.