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McALLEN — When it comes to sports, hitting a ball isn’t Amber Marshall’s thing.
“Volleyball, I guess you could say, isn’t for me. I’d get hit in the face,” she jokingly said with a laugh.
And when it comes to extracurricular sports activities for adults, there are few options for women.
Enter roller derby, a sport made popular by the A&E television program “Rollergirls” that followed an Austin derby league and again by the movie “Whip It,” and Marshall and other women have found a sport with spirit and discipline. In the Rio Grande Valley, the South Texas Rolleristas league, which was started in 2006, is earning its bearing.
On Saturday, two-time champions Traumakazes will face Fallout Brigade at De Leon Sports Complex on 34th Street near Nolana Avenue in McAllen at 7 p.m. Tickets at the door are $8 and $5 for college students with ID.
Marshall, 37, first got a taste of roller derby at a boot camp the rolleristas held last year. Since then, she’s become Vivi Endgame on the Nerdcore Harlot’s team. The Mission resident has been involved in the sport for nine months.
“It’s a cool sport, it’s fast-paced and the only team sport that interested me,” she said.
The roller derby is different from the kind typically seen in movies. For one, rolleristas here play on a flat track. And while roller derby women in movies are eager to hem and claw their way through the half, women here said the aggressiveness in other leagues is more about a show and isn’t something they necessarily subscribe to outside of standard hip-checks.
“It’s a contact sport, for sure,” said Nina Llamas aka Elka Stigo, #13 of the Traumakazes. “I thought it was all about hitting, but it’s evolved – there’s strategy and it’s a real sport.”
Here’s how the game works: each team has five players on the track, which consists of a jammer who scores the points, three blockers and a pivot that plays defense at the head of the pack instructing the team how to maneuver. Players wear different patches on their helmets to differentiate which position they’re playing.
The blockers and pivot work in a pack to stop the opposing team’s jammer from breaking through and scoring. In the meantime, they work on getting their own jammer to advance.
To score, jammers squeeze through the packs. She must race around the pack to lap the group once; after the lap, each time she passes a member of the other team, she scores one point. A jam ends when the two-minute time period is over or if a jammer calls off the jam.
While the sport is known for its aggressiveness, there are still rules the women have to follow. If a skater blocks with her arm below the elbow or trips or charges another skater from behind, they could receive a penalty.
Each bout has two periods that last for 30 minutes with a 30-minute break in-between the two.
Skaters undergo a series of benchmark tests before getting drafted into a league. That includes written knowledge of the rules as well as their physical ability. Women are tested on how many laps they can go through under an allotted time, knowledge on how to fall correctly, blocking correctly and the ability to give and receive the infamous whip technique of using an arm to propel a jammer forward, typically around a corner.
For players like Marshall, learning all the rules and practicing with her team is almost nothing like the bout itself.
“It was more like a learning curve,” Marshall said of her first stint. “It was all about applying the knowledge you’d been given.”
A lot like an adult softball league, these women meet regularly to workout and practice blocking and helping their jammer score. Practices are held in McAllen most weeknights, with some teams leaving at 9 p.m. to head back to home which is often as far away as Brownsville. The travel team, under the league’s name South Texas Rolleristas, which is almost like the league’s all-star players, can practice for four hours on a Sunday. Weeknight practices, rolleristas say, are difficult to get the whole team to attend with work and family responsibilities.
Their busy schedules may tarnish the young, wild, rough and tough image, but for the women, it’s a stereotype they’re uncomfortable with.
“We’re really trying to play the sport,” said Lita Leal of Harlingen. “We play with a lot of heart and soul. We don’t have those attitudes people assume we do. We’re family people, we bring our kids here.”
For Ruth Williams, roller derby has almost become a way of life. The 22-year-old from Mission said she dedicates her time to roller derby, working out and her studies in cosmetology school.
A head trainer and member of the Fallout Brigade, Williams, or Peace War as she’s known in derby, said she’s found a way to be athletic in skating.
“You have to be determined,” she said of roller derby. “It’s challenging.”
Her premier introduction to roller derby was courtesy of “Whip It,” which chronicled a Texas teen who entered the sport illegally per organization rules.
“It’s cheesy, but I thought I was in for what I’d seen in the movie,” Williams said.
As a big fan of the sport, Williams said she’s pleased to see it’s growing in the Rio Grande Valley.
In fact, the travel team, which Williams is also a member of, will play its first international bout with the Monterrey Roller Derby on July 21.
“This is a really big deal and we couldn’t be more excited,” said Fidel Juarez, a 27-year-old team coach from Brownsville.
While most of the rolleristas said they felt nostalgic about returning to skating, Palmhurst resident Alva Bocanegra had the opposite reaction.
“I hated to skate,” the Mission school district substitute teacher recalled. “I like to exercise and maintain my weight, but I did it as a hobby and make friends. So I have to skate.”
Bocanegra, 31, who goes as Loba Negra in the Nerdcore Harlots team and was first introduced to roller derby through Williams, said her first bouts were rough.
“I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” she said. “I really got beat up.”
The Nerdcore Harlots have the smallest team, the bare minimum to play, and Courtney Wilson, the team’s co-captain said the league’s players are some of the most dedicated in a growing local sport.
“This is a different league than it used to be,” she said. “The more people we have, the more exposure we’ll get.”
In the future, Wilson and the veteran players in the league say they’re confident their teams and sport will get a bigger audience and maintain local support.
“Not that many people know about it,” Llamas said.
And for other women who want to join, novice skaters like Krystal Garcia, aka Suzie Cyco from the Traumakazes team, say anyone can be taught the sport.
“You have to be dedicated, but don’t get scared, we’ll teach you everything,” said Garcia, who’s now one of the veteran players. “We won’t just throw you out there.”
The league’s travel team will face Amarillo in June 9 and the local championship between the local teams will be June 16. The South Texas Rolleristas’ season will end on Oct. 26 when they face the Corpus Christi team.
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The Progress Times is the hometown newspaper for the local communities of Mission, Sharyland, Alton, Palmview, La Joya and surrounding areas in Western Hidalgo County. We have a staff of veteran reporters who work diligently every week to bring our readers the latest news as it affects their hometown area and people.