I initially thought that writing this blog about our experience at the 2018 British Championships Playoffs would be easy, but I'm actually finding it difficult because our success this year wasn't based on just one weekend. It was so many little (well, huge to us) things throughout the year which just made Playoffs the cherry on top a massive cake.
To give a very quick summary of our achievements this year to date, call it a humble brag maybe (sod it, we earned it):
We started the year very much the underdogs. We were ranked 179th in Europe, our first opponent, Cambridge Rollerbillies, were 98th. Based on those stats we were expecting a washout season, however we lost to them by only 18 points instead of the predicted 200.
We never played a single game with a full roster. Twelve skaters was our personal best and for some of our players this was their very first season. Skating so short puts a strain on the team especially when playing teams with full rosters, but we adapted to the challenges and it made us stronger. Endurance!
It wasn't just our first game where the odds were against us - we were predicted to lose every game. Instead, we won half of them and the scores show we made our opponents work for every point.
These results meant we moved up the rankings until we got to around 120th in Europe after our last game, our highest ever position.
Against all odds we came second place out of five teams in our division! The previously lowest ranked team got silver! Yasss! This second place position also meant we got an invite to Playoffs for the first time in WRD history, bringing us to the reason for this blog.
For anyone reading who doesn't know the structure of British Championships, Playoffs is the final event in the tournament calendar where invited teams compete over two days to decide where they place in their tier. For us, Saturday was the big one, we had to win that game in order to get promoted to Tier 2 next year. If we did win that game we’d also get to play two more games on Sunday. If we lost however, that would be it; no promotion and no more games that weekend. To add even more pressure, it was announced that the finals on Sunday would be streamed live on the BBC Sport website. As if it wasn't daunting enough that our friends and family could pay to watch a livestream of us for the first time ever, we might also be watched on the BBC. How did this happen to us? We were not expecting any of this at the start of the year. The sheer thought of this brought me out into random bouts of nervous laughter and I had to keep trying not to think about it. We always go into games wanting to win, but as cheesy as it sounds we were just proud to have made it to Playoffs in the first place. Whatever happened we wanted to have fun and enjoy every minute.
Our Saturday game, the one with the most at stake, was against North Wales Roller Derby. We had wanted to play North Wales for a while and we knew going in they would be tough. We had learned in advance that our tactics were pretty much the same so this was going to be interesting. The entire game was a series of anxiety inducing lead changes, the score never much different with the half time score being 73-80 to us. This continued into the second half and the game was anyone's all the way until the very last jam.
It's all a bit of a haze now, but in that last jam I was on track and I think some penalties occurred. Seeing their jammer keep passing us I genuinely thought we'd lost it. Our captain, Hayley, had taken the star and I saw her zip past, score some points and the final whistle followed shortly after. I slowly rolled over in the direction of our bench area to have a commiseration hug with my teammates. We had definitely held our own against a first place team and should be proud. But I saw them jumping and cheering. I looked at the scoreboard and saw the unofficial score showing we had won by 5 points. What?! How did that happen?! I then looked back at my team and saw our LUM sobbing, and then some others started too and that was it. I can't cope when I see others crying. The result of a tough year mentally and physically, for myself and for my team, the amount of hours and effort we had put in together, the pride of the fact we started as the lowest ranked team in our division and we had just secured a promotion to Tier 2 next year, it all escaped and I joined them with the tears. In fact, I didn't really stop until a lot later in the day. Just reading various incoming well done messages from old and present teammates back home who had paid money and taken the time to watch us on the livestream would set me off again, it almost became a running joke. Damn, my soft side had been unmasked...don't tell anyone.
We weren't expecting to win our first game. There were talks of going to the pub and getting pissed Saturday night because we didn't think we'd have to play Sunday. However we now had to be good because our next game was at 9:00 the next morning, not a prospect I was looking forward to. The other results for the day meant that it turned out our first opponents for Sunday was going to be a rematch against Cambridge, which we already knew was doing to be a tough game from playing them earlier in the season, but at 9am...whyyy?
I found this game hard. A combination of the soreness from the previous days game and the early start, meaning my body hadn't had time to wake up, only made it harder. I felt easily fatigued and an old shin niggle reared its ugly head which resulted in me having to take more breaks than I wanted. It's very rare I take breaks, so having to do so had an impact on my mental game as well.
This game was to decide who would be playing the Tier 3 final streamed on the BBC and Cambridge did not hide the fact they wanted it too. It was another nail biter throughout with the half time score having only five points difference. The second half was much of the same but Cambridge managed to gradually pull ahead towards the end and deserved their win. We had made another first place team really work for every point, that made the loss worth it.
Other results throughout the day meant that our final game was to be against Nottingham Roller Derby, another team we have wanted to play for a while. This game was for third/fourth place and the winner would secure a bronze medal for coming third place in Tier 3. This was by far my favourite game of the weekend. Damn did those ladies hit hard, but it was always done with a smile and both teams had so much fun on track. I think our bodies managed to wake up from the earlier beating and we played a strong game throughout. After what felt like the longest 60 minutes of our lives (playing three full games in two days is exhausting, who knew?), we managed to secure our second win of the weekend, third place in Tier 3 and a bronze medal to match!
Everyone had the best time that weekend and it was better than any of us expected, as an experience and also our performance. We had teams we had never met before approaching us throughout the weekend saying the nicest things about how much they enjoyed our games and how well we played. We had previous opponents cheering so loud for us trackside during games, and we unexpectedly got such a loud cheer at the medal ceremony at the end of Sunday. I say this because we're not used to so much attention, we're always the team who plays uncomfortably short and has just a handful of supporters (mainly partners) in the crowd at away games if we're lucky. So to have so much support made me feel so proud and grateful to have such dedicated and supportive teammates to get us all to that moment.
If all of the above wasn't enough, that night we discovered we are also now ranked another highest we've ever been...at the time of writing this we're finally in the top 100 in Europe! In the space of seven months we have climbed an incredible 83 places, another thing not one of us could have predicted.
It was obviously a team effort, but two people key to this success (even though they'd never admit it) were our Bench Tom and LUM Kate. They consistently came to as many training sessions as possible, Tom sometimes missing out on his own training and Kate also growing a human throughout the whole season, just to ensure we were on top form. Kate even came to Playoffs despite giving birth just days before, now THAT is a teammate, nothing was stopping her from completing the season as our LUM and we couldn't be more grateful to them both for the selfless sacrifices they made for us.
The 2019 British Champs teams haven’t officially been released yet, but we are hoping to still be entering as a Tier 2 team next year, the highest level WRD has ever played. Our post-playoffs break is now over and we're ready to knuckle down and really train our butts off in order to give us the best chance possible to continue showing everyone just how mighty Wiltshire Roller Derby is.