Could this finally be the Hotrod Honeys’ year?
There hasn't been a Texas Rollergirls’ championship bout in living memory without the Honey's distinctive black and pink on the starting line. Yet for the last three years they’ve rolled away with silver, falling in successive bouts to every other team in the league.
Then at last month’s season opener, they forged a decisive and near-flawless 378-131 victory over 2013 champs, the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers, and established themselves as 2014's number one contenders.
They were good already, but the powerful Hotrods may have found that last missing component in Stone Her. In a phenomenal Texas debut for the ex-Tallahassee Rollergirl, she deservedly swept the MVP award, complimenting established power players like Hauss the Boss and Bloody Mary. Personally, I was reminded from a distance of one of my favorite pivot/blockers, Shank, with a combination of speed and aggression without arrogance.
Their victory over the Heartbreakers was a masterclass in discipline. Strangely, some of their veteran fans declared post-bout that the gingham gang had just given up in the face of the Honeys – a strange way to support their team, by underselling their massive victory.
On the day, they were simply the better team, just as the Heartbreakers were the better team last year. Primarily, it came down to jammers: Last year the Heartbreakers had a bench six skaters deep, this year it was the Hotrods capable of putting a first string point scorer up every time. Throw in the seemingly impassable Olympia, skating as well as she ever has, as a one-woman wall and the Heartbreakers couldn't get the traction they needed.
It was a performance that immediately leapfrogs them into number one contender contention. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. One, between retirements and pregnancies, it was a very different Heartbreakers that took the track last month, compared to the one that inched past the Hotrods last year. Two, the Hotrods have a solid record in the last few years of winning the season opening rubber and still coming second at the end of the year. And, three, it’s a long time until the finals.
That journey starts this weekend, as the Hotrods face 2012 champs the Hell Marys, who have their own February MVP in South Texas Rolleristas transfer Peacewar.
Her debut last month against the Hustlers was initially quietly impressive, and fitted the unshowy but resilient play that has become the Hells' trademark. Like every team, they'd had some turnover, but this was the first bout without their spirit animal, the unstoppably enthusiastic Muffin Tumble, on the bench. Instead, she was cheering from the sidelines as one of the new crowd wranglers. Yet the modern Hells' spirit she epitomized, a huge reversal from the bitter times of their doldrums' years, still shone through in moments like Sinnerfold rolling on for 23 points after she got her fingers crushed.
Both teams played smart and hard. After the Hells took an early lead, the Hustlers found their mojo and made it a neck-and-neck second half of the closing period, even pulling ahead by the close after Sprawkett took advantage of a power jam for four grand slams.
But the Hustlers found themselves on the receiving end of penalty bad news in the second period. With Sprawkett still in the box as the clock restarted, Peacewar pulled out 20 points for a 12 point lead, and from there the Hells kept inching ahead, until finally opening the throttle for a three digit lead at the final, 267-166. As per the current game, much of that lead came from power jams as the opposing jammer sat in the box: If the current proposed Women's Flat Track Derby Association rule change cutting penalties to 30 seconds is adopted, those kind of wild swing games could become a thing of the past.
Both the Heartbreakers and the Hustlers get a chance to dust off their defeats when they go wheel-to-wheel this weekend. The Heartbreakers have a lot of rebuilding to do after their post-season restructuring, but if ever a team was the epitome of the post-championship crash, it's the Hustlers' purple disco mob. After breaking the Hotrods' last winning streak in 2011, they had a rough 2012 but started putting the pieces together last year under the ever-smiling captaincy of Me Shove You Long Time. She gave them spirit and a sense of bon homie that had been missing from the fussies (as they are lovingly called sometimes.) This year, they have a real opportunity with the return of the real Babe Ruthless. It was her playbook that put them over the top in 2011. If she can re-apply that strategic mind this year, there's a real chance of the Hustlers putting all the pieces together – or at least setting themselves up well for 2015.
If I had one issue with last month's double header, and this is something I don't like saying, it was with the reffing. Now I know they're all volunteers, and that is admirable, but so are the skaters. There were two very specific issues. One, during the Hells/Hustlers bout, some calls seemed to take an unendurably long time, and that lead to some seat-shuffling in the crowd. Two, to quote that same crowd, "Where's the pack?" The 20 foot rule (defining what is and isn't in play) is an essential part of the flow of the game, and there were multiple occasions when the pack looked more like a disconnected conga line. That needs to be addressed, as do player concerns that some high blocks were being ignored, as well as mis-communication between the refs and the score keepers.
And this isn't declaring open season on the officials. Team Zebra works their asses off, and often does not get the respect it deserves from players or the crowd. But as the quality of play improves, the reffing has to keep up. The refs deserve the skaters' respect, and the skaters need to know it is well placed.
Sat., March. 22, 5:15pm. Austin Convention Center, 500 E. Cesar Chavez, 512/404-4000. $15 ($12, advance; $5, kids). www.texasrollergirls.org.
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