Throwing elbows north of the border
Rolling smoothly along, the Wheels of Justice will carry a lot of momentum into the biggest flat-track roller derby tournament of the year.
The all-star team representing Portland's Rose City Rollers is taking a 7-0 record into the 2019 Women's Flat Track Derby Association world championship tourney.
Defending world champs and three-time winners of the title, Wheels of Justice is the No. 1 seed for the 10-team tournament Friday through Sunday, Nov. 15-17, in Montreal, Quebec.
The Wheels of Justice will play a quarterfinal match at 3:30 p.m. PT Friday against either Philly Roller Derby or Texas Rollergirls, who play a first-round game Friday morning.
The Portland team's semifinal match would be at 5 p.m. PT Saturday against either up-and-coming Denver Roller Derby or No. 4 seed Arch Rival Roller Derby of St. Louis. The championship match is at 1:30 p.m. PT Sunday.
Denver passed the St. Louis club in the rankings since the bracket for the championships was announced. In the October WFTDA rankings, Victorian Roller Derby of Australia is No. 2, Gotham Girls of New York City No. 3, and Denver No. 4.
"Last year, (Denver) had a lot of good talent. This year, they have more, and they've had a year to work with the new skaters," said Bonnie Thunders, co-captain for Wheels of Justice.
It's clear that the rest of the world is chasing the Portland team, though. In its seven games of 2019, the Wheels of Justice outscored opponents by an average of 209-104.
In its most recent competition, the Thin Air Throwdown in September at Denver, the Wheels of Justice posted its biggest victory ever by thumping once-dominant Gotham Girls Roller Derby 171-78.
Wheels of Justice followed that with a 208-128 win over No. 2-ranked Victorian Roller Derby of Australia.
Those dominant outcomes aside, Thunders said Wheels of Justice is taking no shortcuts in advance of the world championships. As the holders of the Hydra Trophy, the Portland team has a big target on its back this week.
"It's not the kind of thing where games feel like we're out there walking in the park and skating circles around everybody. Parts of the games are close. Teams are making us work for it," Thunders said. "We're having to put in the work to stay ahead."
Last year, Wheels of Justice entered the world championships looking to avenge a 2017 loss in the finals. WOJ also went into that tournament with a lot of unknowns because of significant roster turnover.
The team that will represent Portland's Rose City Rollers at Montreal is almost identical to the one that beat Victorian 144-121 in the 2018 world championship match.
"We're having one of those lucky seasons where we really didn't lose anyone. We picked up where we left off last year," said Thunders, whose real name is Nicole Williams.
Thunders is a legend in the sport and will be playing in her 14th consecutive world championship tournament. She moved to Portland in December 2016 after helping New York City's Gotham Girls win five world titles.
In her first season in Portland, Wheels of Justice entered the world championships as defending champions but lost to Victorian.
This time, the Portland team is better positioned to retain its grip on the Hydra Trophy, according to Thunders.
"What's different this time around (from 2017) is the team is a lot of the same people who won last year," she said. "You were responsible for that win, so you feel responsible for defending that win versus having a lot of turnover, and you don't feel like it was your win the previous year."
Its one notable lineup change has not slowed down WOJ. Stan the Woman, a skater who moved to Portland about a year ago to join Rose City Rollers, replaced Dena "Drone" Lactaoen, who retired due to injury after one season with WOJ.
"She plays exactly like (Drone)," Thunders said of that smooth transition.
Opponents' strategies to counter the dominance of Wheels of Justice have included playing a more defensive style against specific Portland jammers, matching their strongest jammers against who they see as WOJ's weaker jammers, and sometimes extending jams with the hope of taking advantage of a penalty or simply to waste time and keep the score close.
Wheels of Justice seems prepared for whatever it might encounter at the world championships.
The focus of the run up to the climactic tournament has included specific plays that work best against specific opponents, but mostly on self-improvement.
"We are focused on own development and individual skills improvement," Thunders said. "But we're also focused on what team strategies can by tailored to our opponents."
What: Women's Flat Track Derby Association World Championships
When: Friday-Sunday, Nov. 15-17
Where: Montreal, Quebec, Canada
From Portland: The Rose City Rollers' all-star team, Wheels of Justice, is the defending world champion and top-tanked team heading into this week's event.
Schedule: Wheels of Justice will play its quarterfinal match at 3:30 p.m. PT Friday, Nov. 15. Its semifinal would be at 5 p.m. PT Saturday, Nov. 16, and the championship match is at 1:30 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 17.
How to follow: Tournament results will be available at www.wftda.com.
How to watch: Pay-per-view streaming of the matches is via WFTDA.TV. Cost for the entire tournament is $30.
About Rose City Rollers: Established in 2004, the league offers flat-track roller derby opportunities for girls 7 and older. It has more than 400 members.
Four competitive teams for ages 18 and older compete from January to June.
Top skaters from those teams skate for the all-star Wheels of Justice team that represents Rose City Rollers in international competition.
Headquarters: Based at The Hangar at Oaks Amusement Park, Rose City Rollers is continuing to seek a new, permanent home, either at an existing building or by building its own facility. The Rollers have partnered with Rock N' Roll Camp for Girls, which offers music camps and programs for girls, in the search for a venue to accommodate both nonprofit programs.
— Paul Danzer
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