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Back on the Track: Roller Derby Team Looks to Build on Success

  • Abigail Howard leaps from skate to skate during a 2013 agility drill with the Upper Valley Vixens at Great View Roller Skating Rink in Enfield. Valley News file photograph — James M. Patterson



Valley News Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 09, 2016
Stability and commitment within the Upper Valley Vixens is translating to tangible progress both inside and outside the rink.

The Vixens, a grassroots roller derby team entering its fifth season, has been approved to skate this year as an apprentice affiliate of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association. The WFTDA, the sport’s national governing body since 2004, sanctions numerous regular-season tournaments and supports a ranking system and playoff structure.

If its single-season apprenticeship goes well from an organizational standpoint this year, the Vixens and their parent league, Twin State Derby, will become a full WFTDA member and be eligible for postseason play in 2017.

“Who doesn’t want to go to the playoffs?” said Taylor “ElizaDeath” Long, a veteran skater and head of Twin State Derby’s communications committee.

The Vixens were accepted after being recommended by sponsor program Green Mountain Roller Derby, a Burlington-based team that has been both a Vixens opponent and partner for trading referees and other administrators in recent years. Becoming a WFTDA apprentice accomplishes a long-standing goal for the Vixens, who have been targeting the promotion since their first season in 2012.

“It’s something we’re really excited about, something we’ve been working toward for a while now,” Long said. “We didn’t really have the ‘woman power,’ so to speak, to apply for it in the past. Last year, we really had a great turnout, and we knew it was something that was realistic for this season.”

The Vixens were 7-1 in bouts last year, but the wins were only part of their success. The ample presence of both dedicated referees as well as non-skating officials — those who tend to administrative duties such as clock management, scorekeeping and public address announcing — was enough that they rarely needed to dip into their player pool or call on other organizations for help running bouts effectively. It was also their first season with a pair of full-time coaches in Steve “My Baby Daddy” Henck and John “Bob” Grandi, the team’s bench coach.

Henck, of White River Junction, had previously provided numerous duties for the Vixens while balancing another schedule playing for the Mean Mountain Boys, a Burlington-based men’s roller derby team. Henck had officiated as much as coached for the Vixens in the past due to a dearth of volunteer referees.

“I think gathering enough officials so that (Grandi and I) could transition fully to coaching has helped a lot,” Henck said. “We have a four-person training committee where we share leading practices and develop goals and strategies we’d like to see put in place.”

Withstanding numerous incarnations and waves of popularity since debuting in the early 20th century, roller derby has surged over the last decade or so, particularly women’s leagues. There are more than 350 member leagues worldwide and more than 70 apprenticeships ongoing with the WFTDA, to say nothing of unaffiliated startup programs. Derby bouts consist of a series of “jams,” featuring one skater per team (its jammer) earning points by lapping opponents, known as blockers, intent on preventing them from doing so.

Roller derby has long contained elements of entertainment, showcased mostly today by the use of creative nicknames (the Vixens feature skating monikers such as Wild Rumpus, Apple Corrie and Bruise on Tap). Yet athleticism is emphasized today perhaps more than ever in roller derby, with successful teams increasingly possessing the most astute combination of speed, strength and cohesiveness. Many of the Vixens cross-train with other activities to stay fit when they’re not at practicing.

“Footwork is fundamental, so we spend a lot of time just getting better on skates,” Henck said. “Other big areas are partnering (linking arms with teammates for effective blocking), hitting and jamming. And our committee is always coming up with various strategies to implement.”

The Vixens’ top jammers include Elizabeth “TB” Reinke, Morgan “Voldemorgan” Hamilton and Jesse “Bio-HazarJess” Mast. Their top blockers are captains Ellen “Felon of Troy” Reader and Cynthia “Lady & the Tramp Stamp” Scott — both of whom are also used occasionally as jammers — along with Sarah “Wild Rumpus” McKinney and Moira “Slamwise Gamgee” Hershey.

Under WFTDA rules, the Vixens this year will have a charter roster of 20, with 14 named eligible for bout days.

“That gives us flexibility for injuries as well as lack of availability,” Henck said. “The most notorious thing keeping skaters from playing are weddings; they always seem to come on bout days.”

There are 23 total skaters for Twin State Derby, enough for scrimmages and a “B” team, Long noted. The Vixens open the season March 19 in Setauket, N.Y., against the Strong Island Derby Revolution. They’ll return for five straight home bouts, averaging about one per month, before wrapping up the season in late October at the Hellions of Troy (N.Y.) Herculadies.

The biggest factor contributing to Twin State Derby’s widely spread-out schedule is working around the outside-the-rink lives of participants, Henck said.

“It’s hard even to have matches every three weeks because we try to have lives outside of derby, to varying degrees of success,” he joked.

That said, the level of commitment for both athletes and organizers has shown Henck that Twin State Derby is ready for advancement.

“I’ve been around a lot of different leagues as an official, and the Vixens are really on top of stuff,” the coach said. “They’re a good organization not only from a skater-and-skill-level standpoint, but an administrative standpoint.”

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3225.