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The Burning River Roller Girls – True Cleveland Sports Heroes

A minor pileup at last month's semifinals match between The Hellbombers and Hard Knockers.

 

Last week, I shared my opinion on the city’s unjustified adoration feeding LeBron James’ egotrip. Of course, on Thursday, we saw how the train went off the tracks with the self-aggrandizing, outlandish circus of  his ESPN ‘Decision’ special.  It was nothing more than a ludicrous publicity stunt which may have been a disappointing night for Cleveland, but was even more devastating for the perception of pro sports.   

Just to clarify, I don’t have a problem with his decision to go to Miami – at its core it was a business decision. Albeit, it was one that I believe demonstrated his immaturity and shortsightedness (I agree with the Orlando Magic GM and other commentators that even if LeBron does win championships in Miami, not being able to do it on his own will keep ‘King James’ from the Jordan-level stature he seems to think he deserves).     

What was pathetic about Thursday, though, was the unnecessary spectacle of it.  Although ‘Decision 2010′ was watched by close to 10M people, it has been criticized by nearly everyone as a rock bottom moment for pro sports, journalism and even society (considering that without the eager audience there wouldn’t have been a need for it).  

The Rolling Pin-Ups line up against The Cleveland Steamers at June's semifinals. The Pin-Ups' victory landed them a spot in Saturday night's finals.

 

However, the purpose of this post isn’t to add more criticism to how LeBron handled his decision. Instead, the shamelessness of it serves as a sharp contrast to the true athleticism and sportsmanship I had the joy of witnessing this weekend.  For anyone who didn’t catch my updates on Saturday at @ADHicken or Clue Into Cleveland’s facebook page, I’m referring to the Burning River Roller Girls‘ finals.   

The BRRG is Cleveland’s first all-female, skater-owned, flat-track derby league, and on Saturday night the league’s 4 teams battled to determine the season’s Hazard Cup champion.   

If you’re unfamiliar with Cleveland’s roller derby league, you can read my previous overview of the league and recap of their Semifinals.  I’ve been a huge fan since the first time I watched the BRRG women play; however, after the LeBronpocalypse, I’ve gained even more respect for them.  In addition to dishing up 2 epic, nail-biting bouts on Saturday night, the Burning River Roller Girls offer an inspiring substitute to the selfish behavior of many so-called ‘professional’ athletes.     

Saturday night was a doubleheader between The Cleveland Steamers and Hard Knockers, followed by the Hazard Cup championship between The Rolling Pin-Ups and The Hellbombers.  Congresswoman Marcia Fudge blew the opening whistle to the Steamers-Hard Knockers match. A proponent of maintaining an active lifestyle and female athletes, Fudge was also a fitting choice given the derby’s location in her district.  

Heading into Saturday’s match, The Hard Knockers were 0-4 for the season having recently been defeated by the Hellbombers 117-42 in last month’s semifinals. The Cleveland Steamers, on the other hand, were 2-2 – most recently defeated by The Rolling Pin-Ups in June’s other semifinal match.   

Saturday’s match started with the Steamers’ captain Killustrator taking lead jam to put the first three points on the board. The Steamers played a  tight game early on, not allowing the Hard Knockers to score too many points.  However, Mommy’s Little Monster turned the game around for the Hard Knockers when she took lead jam and the Steamers’ jammer got placed in the penalty box. Mommy’s Little Monster worked this power jam to her advantage by racking up an incredible 20 points and flipping the score to 34-21 in favor of the Hard Knockers.   

Although the Hard Knockers suffered a loss against the Hellbombers in last month's semifinals (pictured), they pulled out a victory against the Cleveland Steamers on Saturday.

 

Although the Steamers tried to close the gap, Mommy’s Little Monster proved a devastating force when more Steamer penalties placed her in two additional power jams where she scored 20 and 14 points, respectively.  Thanks in large part to Mommy’s Little Monster’s 54 point contribution, the Hard Knockers won their first match of the season with an overwhelming 89-49 victory.  

The Hard Knockers’ victory was an excellent start to the evening. However, the main event was the finals match between The Rolling Pin-Ups and The Hellbombers.  Both teams were victorious in last month’s semifinals, so they were set to battle each other for the 2010 Hazard Cup. For the first three seasons of the BRRG league, The Hellbombers have won the Hazard Cup. And leading up to Saturday’s match, they had an undefeated 4-0 record for this season.  However,  The Rolling Pin-Ups headed into the finals with an intense motivation to win. The last time they competed against The Hellbombers in May, they very nearly defeated them with a 47-50 score.  

In the first half of the match, it seemed as if the Pin-Ups weren’t going to be able to stand up to The Hellbombers, who demonstrated jam after jam why they’ve been league champions for three years. The Hellbombers controlled the pace time and again by taking lead jammer, accumulating points, then stopping the jam before the Pin-Ups could make up a lot of ground. By the end of the first half, the Hellbombers held a substantial lead over the Pin-Ups with a score of 48 to 24.  

The second half started off with the Hellbombers’ trio of skilled jammers – Stroker Ace, Gargiulo and CoCo Sparx – scoring 4, 5, and 4 points, respectively.  However, a couple of jams later, the Pin-Ups’ Professor Booty earned lead jammer status.  The Hellbombers’ jammer, on the other hand, tried pushing through a strong Pin-Ups’ defense, but only succeeded in getting penalized.  Reminiscent of the first match, this gave Professor Booty a power jam opportunity to score 16  points and close the gap to 61-45.  Because the Hellbombers’ jammer was still stuck in the penalty box when the next jam started, the Pin-Ups’ Punk’d Pixie was the only jammer on the track and used this to her advantage to score another 20 points putting the Pin-Ups in the lead 65-61.  

Unfortunately for the undefeated Hellbombers, the Pin-Ups’ turnaround occurred so late in the match that the Hellbombers didn’t have much of a chance to recover.  As the Pin-Ups skated to a shocking victory, the crowd in the Wolstein Center erupted with chants and cheers for the first-time Hazard Cup champions.  

The Rolling Pin-Ups: BRRG's 2010 Hazard Cup Champions

 

Although the back-to-back underdog victories provided some of the most exciting athleticism I’ve experienced in a while, the Burning River Roller Girls continually demonstrate that they’re much ‘more than a player.’ Whether they’re on or off the track, the ladies in the BRRG practice sportsmanship and team bonds not often seen in other sports.  

On the track, pack members will throw themselves in front of other skaters to protect a jammer in trouble. And in roller derby, a sacrifice like this can have damaging consequences with the potential for signficant injuries a constant given. The off-track bonds were likewise evident through Saturday’s finals  as members of the Hard Knockers donned green gear to cheer on the Pin-Ups, and during halftime the players celebrated the upcoming nuptials of a teammate to one of the league’s refs.   

The BRRG also does an excellent job in supporting the local community. When it comes to community outreach, they work with and encourage The Cleveland Firestarters – the city’s first Junior Roller Derby for young women ages 7-17.  Although not officially affiliated with The Firestarters, the Burning River Roller Girls invited the young players out to the finals so that they could introduce the future of the sport to its current fans.  

In my opinion, though, the most impressive part about Cleveland’s roller derby league is the sincere gratitude the teams show for their fans. The league keeps tickets reasonably priced giving Clevelanders an affordable opportunity to experience quality sports.  Moreover, when they’re not on the track, the players are happy to speak with fans and always invite the audience out for drinks after each bout.  On top of all of this, none of the players are paid for their participation – so there are no bidding wars, free agency periods, or ESPN specials. These women are playing solely because they’re devoted to promoting the fastest growing women’s sport in the country.    

Although the season may be done, there are plenty of events to keep you occupied until the next season starts in the Spring. For those interested in possibly joining the BRRG, the Fresh Meat recruitment period starts August 1.  For everyone else, there’s the annual Black and Blue Fundraiser in November with Full-Contact Musical Chairs.   

At Saturday’s finals, the Burning River Roller Girls thanked the city of Cleveland for the support this past season. However, it’s really the city that should be showing appreciation for this league of dedicated women. Not only are the players talented athletes, they are also passionate, unselfish members of the community who provide a refreshing alternative to the nonsense we’re unfortunately accustomed to in more mainstream sports.   

Burning River Roller Girls 411:     

BRRG Teams
Fresh Meat Recruitment
News & Events
Burning River on Facebook
@BurningRiver

Cleveland: Much More Than a Player

Fans lining up as LeBron meets with the Cavs. photo credit: Thomas Ondrey, The Plain Dealer

 

 Lately when I look out of my office window, I can see the fans lined up on E 9th St. where LeBron James is inside being courted during free agency.  And when I’m walking downtown, I’m continually reminded of this spectacle by the various ‘Home’ and ‘More than a Player’ banners hanging from bridges, buildings, and road signs.      

Although I understand fan loyalty to a certain extent, it should really only go so far.  Basketball is a team sport.  At the end of the day, despite how talented someone is or how instrumental a player is to a team (and LeBron is both), he’s still playing within a team. I also understand that having been raised in Akron and spending his entire career here, you have the rare hometown hero who makes good on a national level.  By contributing to the Cavs’ presence in multiple playoffs, he has helped put the team and the city of Cleveland in the national spotlight – at least when it comes to basketball. And as other sports heroes before him who raised themselves up to a better lifestyle, LeBron often gives back to his local community.      

'More Than A Player' sign on I-77 begging LeBron to stay. photo credit: Paula Neal Mooney, Examiner.com

 

However, that doesn’t necessarily justify the lengths we’ve gone to to desperately hang on to him.  The signs and crowds downtown are just the latest in a series of attempts to get him to stay.  There have been LeBron flash mobs and videos; other local sports teams trying to get in on the action (such as the Lake Erie Crushers putting in a bid for LeBron to play for them); and Akron’s Fan Appreciation Day which LeBron fortunately showed up for at the last minute.       

While some say we owe all of this adoration to ‘King James,’ his decision to stay or go really comes down to him being a player – nothing less, nothing more.  Does LeBron think he can win a championship with the Cavs; will his career be noted as one of the greatest in NBA history if he stays in Cleveland?  Or does he need to go to another team to pursue that goal.  That’s really what his free agency is about and there’s an excellent article about it on ESPN.com that looks at the ‘should I stay or should I go now’ argument.        

All of the begging in the world isn’t going to make up LeBron’s mind.  Honestly, if it did, I wouldn’t have that much respect for him.

King James holding court at The Q. photo credit: Tracy Boulian, The Plain Dealer

 

Additionally, while LeBron has brought a lot of attention to the city over the last couple of years, it’s mostly attention for his talent and the Cavs.  To borrow the slogan that’s recently been used for LeBron, Cleveland is so much ‘more than a player.’  Admittedly, like any other urban center we have a lot to improve on.  There are issues with both our infrastructure and our attitudes that need work.  However, if LeBron were to leave, there are many other things that still make Cleveland great and worth checking out.       

There’s an excellent music scene – just read 52 Weeks of Cleveland for an ongoing and entertaining look at it. We offer a wide assortment of skilled chefs and restaurants – from Iron Chef Michael Symon’s (another hometown hero) Bar Symon, B Spot Burgers and Lola and Lolita restaurants, to all of the local restaurants in the Cleveland Food Rocks campaign.  Cleveland’s also home to museums and performing arts noted for important contributions in their fields — from the Natural History Museum whose physical anthropology department recently played a key part in a major discovery; to the Cleveland Museum of Art which just underwent a significant renovation and is the only major American museum that still offers free general admission to the public; to the Cleveland Orchestra which is praised and sought after around the world.  Finally, with institutions such as the Cleveland Clinic and Case Western Reserve, we offer one of the most renowned medical communities in the country and a number of valued educational opportunities.        

Unfortunately, though, it seems very easy to focus on one thing and allow ourselves to be held back by this nearsightedness.  So while I know a lot of Cleveland fans will rest easier if LeBron does decide to stay, it’s not going to be the end of Cleveland if he doesn’t.       

 There is so much more that makes this city. There’s more than one player. We just need to rise up and look past it to see that.

Roller Derby Provides Bruisingly Good Time

Hellbombers vs. Hard Knockers match on April 3, 2010 - Jammers Eduskater and Check Republic face off. (all photos from facebook.com/BurningRiverRollerGirls)

 

I know that my last couple of posts have been focused on some of the theatre and music that can be experienced in Cleveland. I’ll be the first to admit that I have a soft spot for the arts, and am finishing up my next post which takes a look at John Lithgow’s performance of ‘Stories by Heart’ for the Great Lakes Theater Festival.   

However, in addition to the arts, Cleveland also has ample opportunities for sports fans. Some may say Cleveland fans have it rough since our pro teams haven’t won a national championship in quite a while. I feel, though, that that’s an eternal battle a lot of sports fans go through (growing up an Eagles fan, it’s something I had to come to terms with a long time ago).  If you’re looking for an exciting alternative to pro sports in Cleveland, the Burning River Roller Girls offer up a bruisingly good time in the Spring and Summer.    

During the Steamers vs. Pin-Ups match, the Steamers' jammer gets taken down.

 

The BRRG is Cleveland’s first all-female, skater-owned, flat-track derby league. For those unfamiliar with the sport of roller derby, the Gem City Rollergirls created a 5-minute video that explains how the game is played.    

Cleveland’s league started in 2006 when 40 women met to start a derby group. In November of that year they had their first public appearance – Black and Blue Friday, which has become their annual charity event. Season 1 started in April of 2007 and by the end of the year, the Burning River Roller Girls were accepted as the 50th member league of the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.   

Now in its fourth season, the BRRG has four home teams – The Cleveland Steamers, Hard Knockers, Hellbombers and The Rolling Pin-Ups – who compete with one another in five bouts from March to July. Additionally, the BRRG has two travel teams.  The first is the Burning River All-Stars – a WFTDA sanctioned, regionally ranked travel team for whom the best skaters from the BRRG league are selected quarterly. The other travel team – the Burning River Hazmat Team – is the league’s “B” travel team which was formed last season. In addition to the players, the league is rounded out by a support staff of referees, officials, two bout announcers, merch teams and other volunteers.   

The Hard Knockers lining up at the beginning of a jam - Mommy's Little Monster and Skank Williams Sr. up front.

 

The first match Scott and I attended was Bout 3 of the current season which was held on Saturday, May 8 at Cleveland State University’s Wolstein Center.  It was also their Law & Order Night with discounted tickets for police and military.   

The first game of the bout was between the Hellbombers and Rolling Pin-Ups. Leading up to this match, the Hellbombers had been undefeated, and the fight put up by the Rolling Pin-Ups very nearly ended this run.  With a score of 50-47, the Hellbombers barely pulled out a win.  Punk’d Pixie scored the first 25 points for the Pin-Ups in brutal jams time and time again. And when the Hellbombers’ Stroker Ace mistakenly put her jammer cap on inside out breaking a roller derby rule, she kept them from scoring 10 points. Nonetheless, the Hellbombers pulled out a win and preserved their undefeated record.     

Game 2 was between the Hard Knockers and Cleveland Steamers. In contrast to Game 1 which was a very close call, the second game demonstrated a clear winner very early on with the Steamers racking up 63 points versus the Hard Knockers’ 40.  The Steamers started off with a slight lead however the lead quickly blossomed to the point that the Hard Knockers were unable to stage a comeback.  When the Hard Knockers’ lead jammers kept committing penalties and being placed in the penalty box, the Steamers had multiple opportunities to rack up major points on individual jams and score a devastating win.     

The jammer from the Steamers trying to breakthrough a pack of Pin-Ups players.

 

After watching the teams dominate on the track, the fans could meet the players on the Wolstein’s concourse. For me, one of the best parts of the bout was meeting the teams and seeing that these are ‘regular,’ unassuming women who are confidant and determined to pursue their passion.  It was definitely an encouraging experience.    

On June 12, the BRRG plays its next bout – the season’s semifinals. And on July 10, they play the finals — both bouts at the Wolstein Center.  The next match for the Burning River All-Stars traveling team will be in nearby Pittsburgh to battle the Steel City Derby Demons. The local league’s semifinals and finals will be double-headers, with doors opening at 5pm and bouts starting at 6pm – plenty of time to grab a beer or some cotton candy beforehand.  And for those interested in actually getting on the track, there are plenty of opportunities for both women and men.   

Whether you’re interested in participating or watching, the Burning River Roller Girls are doing an excellent job of demonstrating why roller derby is the fastest growing women’s sport in America and definitely worth checking out.   

    

Burning River Roller Girls 411:   

Upcoming Bouts
BRRG Teams
‘What is Roller Derby?’ Video
@BurningRiver