The end of the year tends to be a time for reflection, and a time for writers everywhere to haul out the "Best of the Year" list as a handy crutch. While I normally avoid cliches like the plague, I can't pass up the opportunity to post my list here.
2011 was a year of firsts for me in terms of roller derby. I experienced many of the Western teams for the first time, thanks to my early-season trip to the Wild West Showdown. I became a season ticketholder for the Cincinnati Rollergirls (the first time in my life that I have purchased a full season ticket for any team on any sport). I made it to Indy for my first Circle City Derby Girls home bout, and again a few months later for my first trip to North Central Regionals. In addition to all of the "firsts," I made it to two Glass City Rollers home bouts, four CRG home bouts, and CRG's road bout against Steel City. In all, 2011 was easily my most prolific year for roller derby travel.
I decided that it would be very difficult to issue one "best of" list for the year. My experiences with CRG would naturally overshadow those with other leagues, by virtue of volume alone. So, I will go with two lists: "Best of CRG 2011" and "Best of (non-CRG) Roller Derby 2011." All of these awards are based solely on events I attended, so no skaters from Gotham, Oly, RMRG, etc.
BEST OF CRG 2011:
MVP Jammer, Black Sheep: Hannah Ouchocinco - Hannah was her usual, steady self in 2011. While she uncorked at least one amazing, Matrix-esque move in each regular-season bout I saw, her consistently heady play and overall skill set earned her the nod. She was easily the least-penalized CRG jammer, and her track awareness made tactical mistakes extremely rare. In sports, many see the term "grinder" as a pejorative, implying a lack of top-level skill. When I call Hannah a grinder, it is with admiration. She is certainly skillful and athletic, but she also gets the most out of her ability by combining it with toughness and smarts.
MVP Jammer, Silent Lambs: Hot Slice - Hop Devil was excellent in her bouts with the Lambs, and Nastee had one amazing game. Neither of them, however, provided the consistent contributions of Hot Slice to her team's jammer corps. Showing good speed and surprising power, Hot Slice was the go-to skater when her team needed a big jam. Her play will certainly continue to improve with more experience, and I see Hot Slice as a candidate to make the jump to the Sheep at some point in 2012.
Most Improved Jammer, CRG: Wheezy - Wheezy had an excellent season in 2011, going from a Lambs/Sheep Tweener to a full-time member of the Sheep jamming rotation. Her skill set improved in every major area, including straight-line speed, agility and balance, power, and track awareness. At times, she was the most effective jammer on her team, finding ways through tough Windy City packs when Hannah and K Lethal were struggling. At regionals, she fought through illness to give her team a lift. In addition to all of this, her personality has made her a true favorite among the crowds at the Gardens.
MVP Blocker, Black Sheep: Sk8r-Kinney - The blocking contingent has always been CRG's greatest strength. A typical pack in 2011 might include standouts such as Karma Krash, Trauma, Buckhead Betty, Nuk'em, and Sk8 Crime. As great as those skaters are, it was an easy choice to select Kinney here. She is the best one-on-one blocker on the team, and one of the two or three best anywhere whom I have had the pleasure to observe. She can hand out a big hit, but her game is more positional in nature. She always seems to be in exactly the right position, and her agility and lateral quickness are superb. If you're a Top Gun fan, consider her Iceman, a model of technical perfection who wears down the opponent until her prey gives up or makes a mistake. Had she not already made her claim to the award, her one-woman pack at regionals would have put her over the top.
MVP Blocker, Silent Lambs: Kitten Kicker - This was one of my toughest decisions. I strongly considered Barracuda, Bex Pistol, Cherry Choke, Killian Destroy, and Pistolwhippin' Wendy as well. Although Kitten Kicker (as well as others on my list) did spend some time with the Black Sheep, I considered her primarily a Lamb. Kitten Kicker used her lanky frame, smooth lateral movement, and pack awareness to contribute strong efforts throughout the season. The final tiebreak for me was consistency. While I never selected her as a bout MVP, I also never saw her have a subpar game, and that means a lot over the course of a season.
Most Improved Blocker, CRG: Maime - In previous seasons, Maime was often one stride too late to make an effective block. 2011, however, saw her improve in both the mental and physical aspects of the game to become a very effective blocker. First, her lateral quickness was vastly improved. She looked stronger and faster in all aspects of the game. Equally important, her track savvy took a giant leap forward. Her positioning was significantly better, which allowed her to cut the space she had to cover to make a block. Maime's hard work was rewarded with a promotion to the Black Sheep for the North Central Playoffs. While she didn't see much track time in Indy, it was clear that she could hold her own against the top-level talent on display.
Rookie of the Year, CRG: Hot Slice - See above.
Fans of the Year: The CRG Beeramid Crew - Their outstanding aluminum creations wowed skaters and spectators alike (and annoyed some of the grumpier opponents). One of the highlights of attending a bout at the Gardens is watching the beeramid grow.
Best Bout / Best Moment of the Year, CRG: Silent Lambs vs. Detroit B (Final home bout) - As regular readers know, I am an unabashed fan of B Team Derby. I love watching the hard working, underappreciated skaters get their moments in the sun. The Silent Lambs were in great form against Detroit. The blocking was a magnificent show of teamwork, as both teams' blockers worked in tandem to close holes and recycle jammers. The low-scoring, back-and-forth contest stood tied at 66 with less than a minute remaining in regulation. Hot Slice stepped to the jammer line, and the CRG pack did a great job, harassing the opposing jammer into taking the star to the penalty box. Hot Slice achieved lead jammer status, picked up two points, and put her hands to her hips as she skidded out of bounds near turn one, capping the CRG victory. While the action was great, I enjoyed the atmosphere in the game's closing minutes even more. It had been a tense and physical bout, and it was easy to see that there was some bad blood building on the track. The fans, as they all-too-rarely do during B Team bouts, took over the building. The noise and cheers were amazing. When the game ended, the fans erupted as the victorious Lambs mobbed each other. It's no secret that Miss Print has been one of my very favorite skaters since I saw my first bout in 2007. I described in an earlier post the sad details of my own "retirement" from competitive sports, and as I thought of Miss Print in her last bout, my eyes welled up a bit. She joined John Elway and Michael Jordan (his first two retirements, at least) in walking off the stage in glory and adulation. As much as I love the Black Sheep, the night would have been complete for me whether they later won by 100 or lost by 100.
BEST OF (non-CRG) ROLLER DERBY 2011:
Best Jammer: Heather Juska (Denver) - I saw Juska and her team at the Wild West Showdown early in the season, and I came away very impressed. Wearing the star, she is equal parts crafty and explosive, wearing out opposing blockers with her unrelenting attacks. Her slender frame belies her toughness, and I was not at all surprised to see her take a prominent role with Team USA in the World Cup. (Honorable Mentions: Soulfearic Acid of Rose City, Maiden America of Naptown, Downtown Dallis of Arch Rival)
Best Jammer, Non-Playoff Team: On'Da Sligh (Slaughter County) - On'Da Sligh was another revelation from my trip to the Pacific Northwest. She was by far the best skater on the track in each game her team played, showing off speed and some dazzling moves. Her 360-degree spins in pack traffic were some of the best jammer jukes I've ever witnessed. I would love to see her play against higher-level competition, as I certainly think she could handle the step up. (Honorable Mentions: Roll-R-Damage of Circle City, Cosmo Disco of Des Moines)
Best Blocker: Jackie Daniels (Windy City) - Since I didn't do a "double threat" category, Jackie Daniels is placed here (by virtue of blocking more often than jamming in the Windy City bouts I saw). Ever since her days in Grand Rapids, Jackie has shown toughness, quickness, and smarts. All of those traits and more were on display in her trip to Cincinnati and her action in the NC Playoffs. Much more on her later. (Honorable Mentions: Gabrielle Begeman of Denver, Bork Bork Bork of Windy City, Smack Ya Sideways of Rose City)
Best Blocker, Non-Playoff Team: Megger Bomb (Des Moines) - When I saw Megger Bomb play against Circle City in Indy, it took me back to my first ever derby bout, and a big, fast blocker named Juwana Hurt. Megger Bomb combines intimidating size (and the punishing hits that follow) with nimble footwork, good straight-line speed, and precision positioning. She is a spirit-killing blocker, laying hit after hit on a jammer until the jammer's legs are rubber and her speed is sapped. (Honorable Mentions: Faye Stunaway of Circle City, Astro Glide of Bellingham)
Best Bout / Best Moment of the Year: North Central Region Semifinals, Windy City vs. Naptown - Windy City was in danger of losing to a NC Region opponent for the first time ever, as Naptown was putting on a sharp and furious display in front of the hometown crowd. Since there is no way I can tell it any better, I will defer to Justice Feelgood Marshall's (Windy City Bench Coach and DNN Poobah) description of the events.
Jackie Daniels goes out to jam the next one and it's totally going our way; Yvette, Bork, Sarge and Hoosier are all over the Naptown jammer. Jackie gets lead and a full 5 points on her first lap. Scoreboard updates to Naptown 87, Windy City 81. Our blockers continue to work the Naptown jammer; she is still stuck in the pack and in danger of getting lapped again. Jackie is ripping up the track now, coming for a second scoring pass; she knows she can get the lead back if this jam keeps going well.
Except it stops going well, because as she enters the pack at pretty close to her top speed, she tries to go around a nearly stopped Sarge to the right, just as Sarge moves to the right. Sarge is what the military would classify as a hard target. Physics happen and Jackie goes from like 60 to 0 in an instant, hitting the floor on her back super hard. Everybody in the room goes "OOOOH" at the same time. As any derby player knows, the collisions you don't expect -- the ones you're not braced for -- are the ones that fuck you up.
So Jackie's on the ground. Doesn't move for a couple seconds but it feels like ten. Her jam ref is standing over her and looks like he's about to call the jam on injury. Sarge is also obviously concerned. I'm sure Jackie's got to be relatively seriously hurt, because otherwise she'd call it off, right?
But no. Jackie slowly rolls over, slowly gets up, and keeps fucking going. Amazingly. She is really interested in that scoring pass. She's slower than she was before and obviously in some pain, but she's also Jackie. She gets the 4 points and calls it off at 9-0.
When Jackie gets back to the bench, our lineup manager Angel Dustt and I immediately check to see if she's ok. She's gasping and holding her chest and can hardly talk; she sits down heavily in the back row of seats and unbuckles her chin strap.
Angel says something to her right then, something along the lines of "Nice jam" or "Are you trying to kill yourself?" I do remember exactly what Jackie says back to her in between ragged breaths: "I wanna win. I wanna win."
I'm trying to come up with the right adjective to describe to you exactly *how* she said it, because it is hard to accurately convey how affecting those words were to me, at that moment. She didn't say it very loudly or emphatically -- partially because she wasn't exactly breathing correctly -- but with this quiet intensity and passion that left no doubt of how badly she wanted it and how pain and fatigue were basically irrelevant considerations.
I have a great deal of respect for anybody willing to put themselves out there and play derby, but I don't think I've ever felt respect for pure competitive spirit in my life as strongly as I did at that moment. Quite a few times in the past couple of days I have gotten literally choked up thinking about it. I don't really do "choked up." This was a considerable exception.
'Course that's not really the end of the story; we were still behind 87-85, but Beth Amp got 2-0 to tie it next and it was a new game again. Later in the game Hoosier Mama saved the day as our only blocker out on the floor during a powerjam for Naptown, managing to keep their jammer dead slow, out of bounds or on the floor for most of it.
Jackie herself got the lead back late with a huge 19-0 in the last five minutes, and jammed the last two frames as well. That second half was full of serious heroics up and down our roster. But when I think of this tournament and that game, I know I am always going to remember that image of Jackie Daniels on the bench, barely able to breathe, eyes on the next jam, saying "I wanna win. I wanna win." and ready to go right back out there again.
Now, I was not privy to the conversation on Windy's bench, but Jackie's actions on the track were one of the best sports moments (not just derby moments) that I have ever experienced. First, the collision. I have been blindsided by 330-pound D-1 College prospects on crackback blocks. I once initiated a collision with a catcher that resulted in a separated shoulder (me), a broken jaw (him), a broken collarbone (him), and a three-game suspension (me). But I can assure you that I have never been a part of a collision like this. Had she merely left the track under her own power, it would have been amazing. Instead, she dragged herself through the pack for four more points in an extremely tight contest. She then proceeded to be the closer in her team's victory.
Folks, this was Michael Jordan fighting through the flu to put up 38 in the NBA Finals. This was Byron Leftwich completing passes despite needing his linemen to carry him down the field between plays. This was Duncan Keith returning from the locker room two shifts after losing seven teeth to get the Blackhawks to the Stanley Cup Finals. If you were there in Indy, you witnessed greatness.
Best Afterparty: Circle City Derby Girls - I am not usually a fan of karaoke, but the ladies from Indy made it work. It was a fun atmosphere, and the skaters (gasp!) actually took time to mingle with fans, instead of staying in little cliques. (Honorable Mention: Steel City, for the excellent DJ and great party music)
There you have it. 2011 was a great year for me as a nomadic derby fan, and I'll close with my 2012 Derby Resolutions:
1. Attend at least two high-level regular season and/or playoff tournaments.
2. Attend at least four CRG home bouts
3. Attend at least one CRG road bout
4. Attend at least one Circle City home bout
5. Attend at least two Glass City Rollers home bouts
6. Attend at least two home (interleague) bouts of other WFTDA leagues
7. Attend at least two home (interleague) bouts of other non-WFTDA leagues
8. Attend at least one banked-track bout
9. Purchase Dragon speech recognition software, and
10. Use it to actually complete recaps of at least 80% of the bouts I attend.