By Thomas Gerbasi
Brooklyn and Manhattan always bring it, especially against each other. Queens is a ferocious machine on the flat track. And the Bronx refuses to go away without a fight. Yet despite all this goodness Gotham Girls Roller Derby league fans have seen thus far in 2016, there’s a feeling that given the stakes involved and the usual intensity from both teams, this Saturday’s bout between the Queens of Pain and the Manhattan Mayhem may just produce the best action of the year.
Think about it. Queens looked championship-bound given their opening win over the Gridlock, and Manhattan may have lost on the scoreboard to the Bombshells in their first game of the season, but that three-point defeat didn’t stop anyone from looking at them as one of the best teams in the league. And now they meet, with Queens a win away from clinching a championship rematch with Brooklyn in August, and Manhattan hungry to keep their title dreams alive, something that can only happen with a victory. It’s high noon at John Jay College in NYC this weekend, and both teams know it.
“We always expect that kind of (intense game) from Manhattan,” said Queens’ Erin Watershow. “They’ve always been a really strong and tough team, and whenever we play them, at least the past few years, it’s always been an intense and tough game.”
Adding to the intensity is the reality that with each team only getting three home games, one loss can be critical. It’s not the ideal situation, but it’s one every team has to deal with.
“This is my ninth full season with Gotham, so I’m certainly used to it by now,” said Manhattan’s Em Dash. “But I wish we got a chance to play each other more. We scrimmage once a week, we practice three to four times a week, and only getting a chance to put it all on the line three times is hard. I would love to play every team a bunch of times all season long, but it’s just not practical. So you do what you can, you bring a hundred percent to every single game, and it is what it is.”
That’s the bad news for local derby fans. The good news is that with so much on the line every night, each bout takes on a championship feel. It’s not like major league baseball, where each team has 162 games to play with. This is like combat sports, where a fighter has eight weeks of training to perform on one night. You either get it right or you don’t. If you do, the glory is yours. You don’t, and it’s a long wait for a shot at redemption.
“Especially because I’ve jammed a lot for Mayhem, the idea that you have one night to show everything you’ve worked for and show what your team can do can be really hard,” Dash explains. “So the thing that has made the biggest difference in my game is building up mental skills, focusing on the moment I’m in and just letting go of anything that’s come before, whether it’s losing the previous game by three points or the last jam we didn’t get lead. Everything that’s happened already is gone; all we have is the next moment. And I think that’s the only way to succeed in a season that has so few opportunities to show what you’re made of. It’s just focusing on every moment and making the most of each moment you have.”
This is the beauty of derby. It’s not a bunch of skaters racing around a track hitting each other. It’s so much more than that. In a lot of ways, it’s a chess match on eight wheels, with every skater forced to not just deal with the physicality of the sport, but the strategy, the reality of playing offense and defense at the same time, and doing it all while on skates.
“It’s hard to put a number on it, but this is an incredibly mental game,” Dash said. “And once you develop certain baseline skills, what separates a pretty good player from a phenomenal player, like a Bonnie Thunders, is your knowledge of the game, your ability to put that knowledge into action while people are hitting you, knocking you down and chasing you around the track. And it’s also your ability to reset, shake off a bad jam and focus on what’s coming next. All of those mental skills are critical.”
But perhaps the most important mental skill is making sure that your eyes are focused on what’s in front of you and not what may be down the road. That goes for every sport, and while Erin admits that she and her team are gunning for a rematch with Brooklyn in August, there may not be an August if they don’t get the job done this weekend.
“I would say we’re definitely thinking about Brooklyn because we know that they’re going to be at Champs, but we’re definitely more focused on the game right now,” Erin said. “The focus since we played the Bronx has been on Manhattan. We haven’t talked about Brooklyn too much because Manhattan’s a really tough team and we are by no means underestimating them at all.”
That may be the biggest key to the dominance of a Queens team that has been near or at the top of the league for years, regardless of team turnover.
“Something I know from my experiences in derby, not just with Queens, but in general, is that I think you should never go into a bout expecting to win,” Erin said. “Never take your opponents for granted, even if you’re really confident that you’re the stronger team. Don’t underestimate them. And I would also say that Queens really prides itself on how hard we work and how many hours we put in. Our land drills are really hard and intense, and our team’s attendance is always very high. We’re very dedicated, and that is also one of the secrets to Queens’ success, even with all the internal personnel changes.”
So who wins the mental battle? Does Manhattan’s camaraderie on and off the track put them back in the championship race, or will Queens continue to take out all comers on their way to another title bout? This one may just come down to who is willing to dig down deep and win a dogfight. But then again, both of these teams are down for a good ol’ fashioned throwdown.
“There’s just something really rewarding and exciting about a really hard and tough game,” Erin said. “Even if you don’t win, you can be proud of the way that you played. Blowouts in derby are great if you’re winning, but it’s not nearly as rewarding in the end. So as much as it’s emotionally stressful for me, I would still prefer a close game. It’s more fun to play and it’s more fun to watch.”
Tickets available here.