Tuesday, September 21, 2010

No Cinderellas Here; Minnesota's road to the Finals (part 1)

"That's the kind of s*** that scares me."
- attributed to a player for the Rocky Mountain Roller Girls, on watching Minnesota jump from 7th-seed longshot to Championship contender

The Minnesota RollerGirls defeated three of the top ten teams in the North Central Region of the Women's Flat Track Derby Association (WFTDA) last week in Green Bay, WI. In doing so, the MNRG All-Stars booked a berth in the upcoming WFTDA Championships in November.  

Let me repeat that; Minnesota is going to the Championship tournament in Chicago to play amidst the world's greatest roller derby leagues. The derby world was shocked to find that - as the Derby News Network declared on Saturday - Minnesota's back.

Why the surprise?  Fans of the MNRG may have known about our remarkable team of All-Stars for years, but most leagues remembered Minnesota's last Regional outing at our own Brawl of America in 2009.  We placed 9th out of ten teams, getting wasted by the Windy City Rollers (155-25) and lost to Minneapolis' own North Star Supernovas (76-61).  We did take the final win by narrowly defeating Grand Raggidy (91-76) to finish out of the cellar, but the weekend of play seriously disheartened many of our players.  The phrase 'rebuilding year' got thrown around a lot, but the simple fact was that we did not play well.

From the fan's perspective, Minnesota had two major problems at last year's Regionals.  First off, serious penalty trouble.  Whenever one of our jammers went to the box, the defensive unit would quickly follow in number.  The lack of the Minnesota pack on the track allowed our opponents to strike hard on the power jam and take two or three easy-scoring laps of the track.  Those power jams led to 10-15 points scored against us while our jammer cooled her blistered heels.  

We also had great difficulty breaking past opposing blockers; it seemed as if our defense controlled the front of the patrolling pack, but our jammers would slam up against the walls in the back created by the opposing players and could not shove their way through.  We did not break 100 points the entire weekend.  Plainly, something had to shift; we had finished next-to-last in the last two tournaments (and sent out after our first game in the one-loss-and-out 2007 Regionals).  We were tired of rebuilding, but that meant hard work was ahead.

Minnesota's first response to the 2009 Regionals took place in October when we played and soundly beat the fantastic Carolina Rollergirls 105-69.  If you look back at that bout, you can see some good habits begin to emerge.  Most important of those...the All-Stars did not allow a single Carolina jammer to score more than five points in a jam.  Our blockers were able to keep juggling the Carolina scorer by actively engaging the opposing jammer as she re-entered the pack, sending her to the back repeatedly until our own jammer had time to lap.

Over the next two bouts, we took on two low-ranked leagues in the North Central region - Sioux Falls and Hammer City.  Both leagues have great skaters, but we outplayed them both by understanding the fundamentals of the modern game (walling, controlling pack speed and the clock, and shepherding jammers instead of diving at them) and by working as a unit instead of as individual players.  We beat each by margins of over 125 points. 

The All-Stars took a well-deserved break over the spring, played Minnesota's remarkable 6th season of hometeam bouting, and returned to play a very, very busy summer schedule. Ranked 7th in the North Central Region over the summer by WFTDA, we started the All-Star run against lower-ranked teams.  We took on the best from leagues around the region in unsanctioned play (including Appleton, WI's Paper Valley Roller Girls and the La Crosse Skating Sirens), but we also headed west to Colorado. 

We defeated Pikes Peak (ranked 11th in the West) by over 30 points and a younger Fort Collins team by significantly more, then geared up to go to Philadelphia.  We played close games against Providence and Tampa Bay, winning against both by less than five points each.  These bouts were not fantastic; many players quietly opined that we had squeaked out the wins when we should have been able to stomp all over our opponents.  What they did, however, was show that we could hold off other teams even when our level of play wasn't at its highest.

Our trip to Dallas gave us a much needed awakening.  We put up a tremendous first half, outscoring the South Central region's fourth-ranked Dallas Derby Devils 38-21.  It's reported that our blocking line then began to stumble and our team's endurance fell out from under us.  Dallas thundered back, and despite late-game jamming efforts from Scarmen Hellectra and Venus Thightrap, we fell to the Texans 113-73.  We raged back against Dallas' other flat-track league - Assassination City - and toppled them (and their beer can pyramids) 264-20 in a Sunday bout.  

The All-Stars, under Coach Dan's direction, began to more seriously look at the question of conditioning.  They redoubled their efforts to train for Regionals. The team began showing up earlier to practice and started running multi-hour scrimmage practices.  Coach Dan kept up the pressure with heavy doses of additional agility/power work as well as hellish stair drills.  

We had one more road trip to take before September's tournament.  The West's 10th-ranked Sacramento's Sacred City brought us out for some sun, sweat, and a few surprises, but we solidly defeated them 202-57 using a team very similar to the one that we would put forward in Green Bay.  The cherry on top of that trip?  An opportunity to scrimmage against none other than the Bay area's own roller derby league, the BAD Girl All-Stars.  The BAD Girls are ranked 6th in the powerful Western region, and though we got our butts handed to us in non-sanctioned play, the experience gave us one last look at high-level derby as it might be played in the NC Regional tournament.

By this time, we had gotten the news that we would be seeded 7th in Green Bay's regional tournament for the North Central.  The news gave us something concrete to shoot for. We would need to win both of our bouts on the first day of the tournament.  Win those, and we would be one win away from going to WFTDA's elite Championship tournament in November.  Due to our 7th-seed position, we would charge out of the gate on Friday morning against 10th-seeded Omaha.  If (When!) we prevailed, our All-Stars would then need to defeat the Detroit Derby Girls four hours later.  We would have already played full out against Omaha's quickly-adapting All-Star team, while Detroit would start fresh.

Hard work.  Three hour practices.  Countless hours of watching tape.  Going across the nation to learn everything we could to prepare for Green Bay's Thunda on the Tundra tournament.  Nothing magical; just a hell of a lot of training, countless laps of the track, missed work, and personal sacrifice. The result: a newly-forged MNRG team.  

In the second part of this report (coming later this week), we'll follow the rebuilt MNRG All-Stars to Green Bay as they break through Omaha and Detroit's teams on Day 1 to head towards semi-finals.

(I greatly appreciate the assistance from Slam Serif of the TC Terrors, members of the MNRG, Chad Eng, Ayn Rant of NSRG, and flattrackstats.com for this part of the report.)


Garrison Killer said...

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Reverend Killjoy said...

Thanks for the long-view update, GK. Hope to see you in Chicago.