By Thomas Gerbasi
No home team in the Gotham Girls Roller Derby league has repeated as champion since the Bronx Gridlock pulled the feat off in 2010. On Saturday at John Jay College in New York City, the Manhattan Mayhem begin the defense of their title against the Queens of Pain, and the champs are most certainly hoping to end the six-year repeat drought.
“It’s always the year for a repeat,” said Mayhem newcomer Brawleen Lidz. “We have a lot of amazing new talent on our team that I think has been meshing very well at scrimmages and at practice and the vibe has been very welcoming. I felt accepted onto Manhattan Mayhem as soon as I got the phone call that I was drafted, so I’m really excited to try and make this a repeat for us this year.”
Lidz is one of four skaters donning the orange and black for the first time, and with a 16-skater roster, that’s a quarter of the team that needs to get acclimated not only to the Gotham way of derby, but to the reality of playing at the highest level of the sport every night. Luckily, after winning three of the last five league titles, Mayhem deals with the yearly turnover better than most, and as Lidz points out, that unity among the team was evident from the first time she saw her future squad on the track.
“The first Gotham game I ever saw that wasn’t on television was a Manhattan versus Brooklyn game and I didn’t know any back story about the two teams or that they had this chemistry off the track as well, but when I was watching Manhattan play, there was something there that I couldn’t quite figure out because I was just getting into derby, but something was happening that I ultimately wanted to be a part of,” she said. “And it’s this chemistry, this magical thing that happens. And now I’m here, and it’s still like a dream almost. I’m waiting to wake up from.”
It is still largely a crap shoot until the first whistle blows, though, because when the games are for real, anything can happen, and it’s in the heat of battle that teams with new skaters sink or swim. So if we’re breaking this weekend’s season opener down on paper, the edge would have to go to Queens, a team whose roster is untouched heading into 2017. And with that being the case, the usual desire to not be in the first game of the season is gone. In short, Queens wanted to play yesterday.
“I think because we didn’t get any new skaters this year that we’ve been ready,” said Beauty Andie Beast. “Honestly, when the season first started, I was like, ‘Let’s just play.’ (Laughs) I forgot that other teams were still drafting people. So that’s really given us an advantage as far as having the camaraderie already there and knowing who skates well with each other, so we are definitely ready.”
And how important of an edge is that to have?
“It’s really important,” Beast said. “Even more so than physically being able to skate together and understanding each other’s strengths and weaknesses, because you can pick that up pretty easily. But just the mentality and the bond that you have with your team, everyone’s already comfortable, everyone’s already to work hard and knows the expectations, so you can hit the ground running and work on strategy at a higher level. So we’ve been able to try a lot of new things this year and it’s made practice really fun.”
This all sets the stage for an epic showdown, the type of bout Manhattan and Queens are accustomed to. Last year’s bout was a thriller, Mayhem squeaking by the ladies in black by a 192-187 score, and Queens winning by just seven points in their 2015 meeting. Add in a host of stars on both sides, from Manhattan’s Bonita Apple Bomb, Em Dash, Roxy Dallas and Violet Knockout to Queens’ Hyper Lynx, Puss ‘n Glutes, Short Stop and Suzy Hotrod, and it’s a must see for local derby fans. As for the skaters, it’s a must win, because in a three-bout home season, every match matters. So it’s no surprise that neither team is taking the other for granted.
“I know Manhattan is going to be working their hardest out there,” said Beast. “They’re hungry for it just as much as we are. So this game won’t be an easy win just because of how much both teams want it and how much we’re both going to be working hard for it. I know it’s going to be a good competition.”
“I see a very, very dedicated team ahead of us that really wants to go a hundred percent at us and get a hold of another championship,” said Lidz when asked her thoughts on Queens. But when it comes to that whole Queens winning the championship thing, that’s not something her squad will allow. “No, absolutely not,” she laughs. “That’s not how it works.”
But Queens getting back to the top and winning their first Golden Skate trophy since 2013 is an interesting subplot to the 2017 season. Some would argue that the ladies in black have been the most talented team in the league over the last several years, but there is only the one title to show for it. What will it take to change that?
“Keeping our physical endurance and our strength up, because we are a smaller team in comparison to other teams,” Beast said. “So we have to be stronger than them to be able to hold and block, and when our penalties are low, we really see an impact on our game. So if we stick to our game and to what we know we can do, I think we do that very well. It’s keeping ourselves focused and not worrying about what anyone else is doing but remembering what we can do better.”
On Saturday, the breakdowns and predictions are over. At 7pm, the 2017 season – or more accurately the fight for a title – begins. And it will be a fight.
“When it comes down to it, you’re playing jam by jam,” said Lidz. “Like my co-captain Roxy says, it’s a game of inches and you always have to keep that in mind. You’re going inch by inch and not foot by foot."