Before last weekend's Texas Rollergirls bout began, Muffin Tumble skated up to me. Don't forget, she said, when you write up the match-up, don't forget that the Hell Marys were down four players. Don't forget that when they win.
The double header was supposed to be about title positioning. This year the local flat track Roller Derby league has shifted to a bracket system, with the final championship positioning to be decided at the Aug. 18 play-offs.
The math was pretty simple. Well, ish. After winning the championship in 2011, the Hustlers were languishing 0-2: Even if they beat the Honky Tonk Heartbreakers in the evening's opening bout, they were on the bad end of a 178 point differential, so they would have to win and win huge to get out of fourth place. The Heartbreakers and the Hotrod Honeys were tied at 1-1, but the pink and black machine had a big edge on points. The Heartbreakers needed to win against the Hustlers and for the Hotrods to lose to the Hells in the night's headliner. That was the only secure option, because the gingham avengers were trailing so heavily on aggregate scores that any other model put them into third place.
But the Hotrods weren't in a battle for second versus third. If they could beat the Hells, and beat them soundly, then they had a shot at taking first place. It was a long shot, true, but this was a severely depleted Hells. Their two biggest recruits, Polly Gone and Barbara Ambush, were out with concussions (derby is a contact sport, people), plus they were down key blockers Bexcalibur and Notorious D.I.E.. And don't let last year's title results fool anyone: The Hotrods remain a top flight team. They've always been aggressive, but this year there's been a change of emphasis, away from superstar jammers to a brutal defense. Few teams are more dangerous than the Hotrods when they can assemble a full four wall at the front of a fast moving pack.
So short roster, determined opposition – the odds were against the Hells. But odds are for suckers. The Hotrods stuck to their rough and tumble strategy, but that brought a lot of minors penalties with it. And the Hells surely, steadily, determinedly took them out, 126-109.
It's the absences that make this all the more impressive. With Barbara and Polly out, this was much closer to the roster that went down 144-46 to the Hotrods last season. The real difference makers weren't just on the track – although the Hells have never looked more consistent or cohesive out there. They were on the bench. Bringing Punk Rock Phil and Dagger Deb in as coaches may have been the smartest move that team has ever made, and it showed on the day. Even down to the last minute, Phil was working the track, ordering a cautious game, while Deb was keeping the bench calm and ordered.
From the sidelines, their strategy seemed frustratingly cautious. It finally took a second period 30 point power jam by Smarty Pants – an opportunity created by a botched star pass between Vicious Van GoGo and Bloody Mary – to give the Hells the lead. But once the had it, they kept up that sure, steady drumbeat. Trailing 104-121 in the closing moments of period two, the Hotrods' big 2011 acquisition Rita Menweep had the track to herself in a power jam, but the Hells put together a fearsome two-wall that locked her down for five points. That's what had worked in the first half: Sure the Hotrods may have been ahead, but they rarely dominated a jam. That determined defense was as important to the Hells as any moment of offense.
The Heartbreakers must have been watching that match-up closely, because it determined their fate. After all, they'd done everything they could in their own bout, closing out on a 146-108 victory over a seriously improved Hustlers
So far this season, the Hustlers had all the parts, but had lacked the results. This time around, they really looked like they wanted to be there. It's an evolving team, and that's healthy. Molotov M. Pale keeps developing as a double threat, as capable under the pivot's stripe as she continues to be at smashing through a wall as a jammer. Meanwhile, Chasing Amy and The Killa Sal Monella both had their best nights jamming all year. There were even some real flashes of genius, like Sadie Mae Care using a giddy and gleeful Me Shove You Long Time as a wrecking ball to keep veteran Heartbreaker Ruby Wring out of the way.
Not that the Heartbreakers were sticking to an outdated playbook. Someone was paying attention to the Rose City Rollers from their last visit, and an adaptation of their strange push-me-pull-you partnered blocking (one skater going backwards, pushing another blocker backwards into the jammer) made a successful debut. Add in that terrifying jammer roster – Nae Slayer, Kitty Karnage, Flash Gorgeous and Killbox – and it's pretty clear to see how they have ended up in the number two slot.
And that's where the battle lines lie now. The home teams take a break until Aug. 18 (don't worry, there's the two day Star of Texas Bowl in July to tide you over.) That's when the playoffs go down, with the #1 ranked Hells facing the #4 Hustlers, and the #2 Heartbreakers attempt to keep their championship hopes alive when they face the #3 Hotrods.
Copyright © 2022 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.