Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Coach's notebook - Spanksgiving

(EDITOR'S NOTE: Besides an undying passion for journalism and roller derby, I also referee and coach for the Quad-City Rollers based in Davenport, Iowa.)

On Saturday, the Quad-City Rollers headed up to Dubuque, Iowa, to play a relatively new team, the Eastern Iowa Outlaws. We knew some EIO faces would look familiar as many of the skaters migrated from Cedar Rapids to build a new and fresh team.

The Rollers had played CR a couple of times before and had seen EIO play a few times.

We knew they wanted to come out hard and fast with their hitting game. It's a by-product of their system. Many of their skaters are taller and bigger, and they mostly all gravitate toward a hitting game. A team with a good hitting game can be down right intimidating and can take the focus out of any opponent with solid hits and crowd pleasing action.

EIO's B-team had beaten our B-team last month, and the victors proved that EIO had taken Cedar Rapid's hitting game and made it their own. With only 9 skaters on our team, we knew it would be a tough go-around with short rotations and several skaters pulling back-to-back duty. Thanks to some awesome efforts from our main B-team jammers -- Pissy Missy, Iron Rub'r and Mondo KO -- our Rock Island Line kept the game closer than their previous contest with EIO's second-team.

Even though our B-team was relatively new to playing with each other, they still managed to communicate and execute their defense/offfense when called upon. In the end EIO kept their lead and took the B-bout win.

For the main event, I knew we had to do a few things right:
1. We needed to keep an eye on the clock and manage our timeouts appropriately.
2. We wanted to minimize the things we couldn't control, while maximizing the things that we could.
3. In order to have a solid chance, we had to keep our jammers available to jam in big scenerios.
4. Defense, defense, defense.

In roller derby, the jammers are the only players that can score points. In order to use them effectively we had to stay true to goals 2 and 3. The game is fairly simple when both jammers are on the track, but when one or the other is penalized for an offense, it gives a key advantage to the lone jammer - she becomes the sole point scorer on the track. Power jams can make dramatic swings in the point totals. We were lucky that we kept our jammer penalties to a minimum, but when we had a star in the box, our pack made sure to prevent the opposing jammer from making too many scoring passes.

Likewise if our jammer is the only one on the track, we want to maximize the amount of time she can score while minimizing the amount of time it takes her to make a scoring pass. This gives us more points in less time. In one jam of the first half, Eastern Iowa failed to field a jammer by the time the jam started. This effectively gave us a 2-minute power jam as long as our jammer didn't go to the box. The pack went to work right away -- giving our jammer a quick start and keeping the pack controlled and slow to help our jammer earn several scoring passes.

By half time, we had a decent margin lead. Eastern Iowa would come out with a vengeance looking to make some major hits. I wanted our jammers to do their best to earn lead and score a point or two before calling the jam off - similar to "small ball" in baseball or basketball. By doing this a team can build a small lead and maintain solid clock control.

We were also falling into penalty trouble as several girls had two or three minors, so once they hit their fourth minor they would be spending time in the box. Notably two of our jammers were at 3 minors, so we couldn't risk jamming them and possibly losing the opportunity to score.

With Sassy Smalls starting the second half in the box, we had a tough decision: If we tried to give an intentional fourth minor to an eligible jammer we would be down to two blockers in the pack -- and our jammer was less likely to get many points out of it. We opted to set Lady Gotcha up for her intentional fourth minor right away, with Suzie Spew to get poodled at the next available opportunity.

Luckily Taco was clean on minors, and we opted to put our two strongest and fastest blockers (Sugar N' Slice and Mexican Monster) on the track -- with the orders to stay in front and keep the pack moving fast, to kill off the minute of penalty time.

It worked great other than Few Screws Lucy of Eastern Iowa made a couple of scoring passes, with a big point differential between her and Taco. Unfortunately, it was a mental error on EIO.

With Gotcha and Smalls released from their penalties, EIO called the jam off.

I immediately called for a challenge. Lucy was supposed to start the jam in the box to serve out the rest of her first-half penalty and therefore an ineligible jammer and negating any points she earned in the first jam of the second half.

It was a strategic move on my part -- negating a big first jam for EIO and springing one of my top blockers and a top jammer out of the box. Any momentum EIO had hoped to gain coming out of the locker room was gone. It was also a gamble -- since a team only gets one challenge a half, I was using mine incredibly early in the second half. It paid off. Lucy was sent to the box to serve her remaining time plus an additional minute for a major illegal procedure.

We would continue to control when our jammers were going to the box and keep a clean rotation, allowing a few other skaters to fill in if our main point scorers needed a break.

Frustrated, Eastern Iowa started losing blockers to the box -- at one point with a full box and one skater waiting to go in -- EIO tried to call a timeout with both of their captains in the box (which was actually something we opted to not fall victim to). They got a successful timeout, but it was no good, the captains were still unable to talk with the refs -- one of the afflictions of serving time in the box -- all the while I still had all three of the Rollers' timeouts available to me.

I knew the longer the clock kept running, the harder it would be for EIO to mount any sort of comeback. With that in mind, I wanted to keep our own timeouts to mininum, forcing EIO to call the TOs to stop the clock. I burned one when we realized we had fielded a jammer with three minor penalties, stopping the clock to switch out some players and set Taco up to intentionally earn her fourth minor by an illegal procedure/poodle -- so that she could begin jamming again with zero minors.

EIO would fail to field a jammer for a second time in the game, giving us another 2-minute opportunity for maximum point scoring. In both instances, we had Lady Gotcha on the track to give us the best advantage as the lone jammer.

Two other mistakes that we gratefully captialized on were: EIO at one point had earned lead-jammer, giving her the right to end the jam by repeatedly hitting her hips with her hands, but failed to call the jam off, instead opting to play defense as a jammer -- thus unintentionally running the very clock out that they needed.

Another mistake was the opposing jammer did not have lead, but upon getting through the pack waited there outside of the engagement zone looking to block our jammer when she came through. With lead fully secured, I coached Taco into just slowing down and hanging out behind the pack. Had the opposing jammer hurried and attempted a scoring pass we would have called the jam. But she didn't and we were able to burn about 1 1/2 minutes off the game clock.

The home crowd was pretty upset at some of our tactics, sometimes being confused on why we employed certain strategy. I kept my composer.

Our pack work was stronger than we had in the past two games. The Rollers worked hard at keeping the front cleared and their options open. The endurance training definitely helped, as the team was skating hard and fast to keep the opposing jammer at the back of the pack. As she struggled our jammers were at ease sweeping around and ahead. Our blockers stayed clean for the most part, in comparison with our last game. When we played Iowa City last, we lost at last three skaters to foul outs or expulsions.

This time around, Mexican Monster only had four trips to the box, and even some of our skaters that seemed penalty-prone stayed relatively clean. Eastern Iowa, possibly out of frustration, started stepping up their hitting and taking a few more risks, picking up penalty minutes in the process.

With 3 minutes left in the game, the bout was out of reach for Eastern Iowa. Taco volunteered to jam in both the remaining jams, a testament to her confidence and her endurance. She earned lead, got a few points and waited before she called off the penultimate jam with about 45 seconds remaining in the game, assuring one more jam would unfold. As the clock started ticking down and the time keepers hand raised (a 10-second warning that the jam was to begin), I called my second timeout, to go over some last minute coaching.

If Taco got lead jammer, I wanted her to keep an eye on the clock only calling the jam once it ran to zero. If she did not get lead, the pack was instructed to skate as fast as possible minimizing any more points being scored by EIO (and as a side effect, minimizing the amount of points we could score). I also wanted to make sure she didn't pick up a third minor in the jam prior and we wouldn't endanger a fourth minor and a power jam for EIO.

Taco wouldn't be designated lead, but the pack new the plan and took off, keeping the jammer in the back for a long time. The game was over. We had secured our first win of the season and our first road win as a league.