Upsets and Futures

Close-run bouts challenge Texas Rollergirls' established order

Hell Marys prepare: Coach Punk Rock Phil, returning veteran Kat-a-Killzem and skater Smarty Pants
Hell Marys prepare: Coach Punk Rock Phil, returning veteran Kat-a-Killzem and skater Smarty Pants (Photo by Richard Whittaker)

If a casual fan had walked into Sunday's Texas Rollergirls double header at half-time in either bout, they might have wondered when they walked into the Twilight Zone. The Hell Marys 10 points up on the Hustlers? The Honky Tonk Heartbreakers leading the Hotrod Honeys 37-30? To coin a phrase, business just picked up.

Last time local derby fans saw these match-ups, they were blowouts. The Hotrods, heading to their third championship, pulverized the Heartbreakers 80-26, while the Hustlers took out the Hells 71-38.

Yeah, that was not going to happen this time.

The Hells were looking to give retiring captain Ryder Down one last victory before she hangs up her skates, and that meant taking their purple-clad opponents apart. No small challenge, as Hustler star jammer Molotov M. Pale proved when she opened the night with a grand slam as the Hells' enfant terrible Luce Bandit got caught up in the pack. But this was not going to be some easy slide into home for the Hustlers: Instead, the Hells' pack slowed the play down to a grind and took advantage of every big break, coming out of the half 26-16. Seriously, can anyone remember the last time any team held the Hustlers to 16 in the first half?

Every time the Hells hit the track, they get better: But it's not just the skills, it's the tactics, and this time it was pack control. Throughout the first period, they dictated the speed of play. With rising terror Babyface Assassin injured out, their depleted jammer roster could risk being hard pushed to match the Hustlers. But when their notoriously hard-hitting, full-contact-style blockers were dictating the pace, it became less about jammers and more about the smash 'em, bash 'em defense.

It was a similar situation when the Heartbreakers took on the Hotrods in the second bout. The gold-helmeted Heartbreakers was facing a lineup that can outclass most league's all-stars: But then again, the Heartbreakers are heavy with Texecutioners this season, so the term push-over is not in their vocabulary.

Just like the Hells were quick to answer Molotov's opening five point volley, Detroit veteran/Heartbreakers' fresh blood Sarah Hipel overtook Bloody Mary's opening grand slam with a dominating nine pointer. It may have looked for a while like the Hotrods might be back in the driving seat, courtesy of a double grand slam from Olivia Shootin' John in jam six, but again it was Hipel with the difference maker, putting 15 on the board to pull the Heartbreakers ahead 30-21. But the real battle was not between jammers: Again, it was about pack control, and the Heartbreakers played the slow start card repeatedly and successfully right through into the early half of second period.

So the first periods were all about which team could run the pack at their preferred speed. Ultimately, each bout depended on one question: Which jammers could get the hang of the track first?

After nearly a decade at Playland, the floor at the Convention Center sets new challenges for the Texas Rollergirls, and this night it was particularly slick. Much as that lack of grip had helped the Hells in the first period, when the reinvigorated and, frankly, pissed off Hustlers hit the track in the second half it was a different story. Molotov smashed out a triple grand slam, then came back a jam later for a double, setting the Hustlers on track to take down the Hells 69-48.

In fact, points' wise, the only skater that had the edge over Molotov all night was OJ, who became the Hotrods' difference maker. As the pack sauntered into jam six, she blasted through to an unanswered double grand slam while Short Cut was stuck among the blockers. That was the tipping point, but the final hammer blow came six jams later when OJ's 20 point jam sealed the deal for an 86-52 victory.

There was no victory for Ryder, but she leaves the Hells with the knowledge that her team put a real scare on last year's championship runners-up. In the same way, the Heartbreakers took the Hotrods on jam for jam and forced them to bring out the big guns.

So what now? The Hotrods sit 2-0 and are aiming for a straight run when they face the Hells on June 10. The Hustlers and Heartbreakers both sit 1-1, making their match-up into a bout for all the marbles and a shot at the championship. Whoever wins, the Hotrods face a challenge in August's title defense: But with the Hells getting closer in everyone's rear view mirror, they'll be looking to put a few dents in the champs in next month.

But the real and deeper meaning of what the fans saw this week was the shape of the 2012 season. The conventional thinking of "Hotrods on top, then Hustlers, then Heartbreakers, and Hells at the rear" took a substantial blow. Come June 11, no-one on the bench will be sitting on their laurels, and everyone in the stands will be watching for another sign of the changing power structure within the league.

That all said, this weekend everyone will be putting team loyalties aside in support of the league's travel team. Tonight the all-star Texecutioners are in Portland, Ore., to face the Rose City Rollers (for those of you that cannot afford a last-minute ticket to Oregon, you can follow the live stream via the Rose City website, starting at 8pm Pacific, 10pm Central.) That is just the start of a big weekend: Tomorrow, May 21, the Texies spend the night in Olympia, Wash. to take on the Oly Rollers, followed by a Sunday morning private bout against the other power team from the North West, Seattle's Rat City Roller Girls (textcast via Derby News Network, May 22, 10.30am Pacific, 12.30pm Central.)

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WFTDA, Hotrod Honeys, Hustlers, Hell Marys, Honky Tonk Heartbreakers, Sarah Hipel, Molotov M. Pale, Olivia Shootin' John, Babyface Assassin

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