Just 2 ranking spots and an average of +2.9 separated Ann Arbor from a playoff invite in 2015. After a 15–4 record in a massive 19 game season they had come up just short.
How teams on the bubble respond is always interesting — some teams give up, others hover at that mark year after year, and a few regroup and find a way to break past that barrier. For the Ann Arbor Brawlstars in 2016, they destroyed that barrier. We have them entering Playoffs in 33rd, the first 9 seed in Division 1.
Regrouping early in 2016 the Brawlstars kicked off their 2016 season with a road loss to Ohio 244–139 in March. The loss impressed Ohio Coach Andrew Marron though, who predicted that the Brawlstars would reach the Division 1 cut off by playoffs.
The Brawlstars would rebound from that loss to go on an 11 game win streak beating 6 Division 2 Playoff invitees over that span (Calgary, Wasatch, Charlottesville, Chicago Outfit, Blue Ridge and Tri City).
Their first ever playoff invite will bring new challenges as they are set to play their highest ranked opponents ever at Playoffs, but with the foundation they have built they look like they may still have room to climb.
We reached out to the Brawlstars for more insight into their season, their goals and success and also what advice they can pass off to other bubble teams who will be watching this years playoffs from home.
After sitting just on the outside of playoffs last year how much did that motivate the team this year? What advice can you give to teams who are in that position this year?
Brawlstars Co-Captain Slamlet: Missing playoffs by just a few spots last year was quite the bummer. Although, honestly, the blow was lessened by the fact that we started 2015 not even imagining that D2 was a possibility! Our goal was to climb in the rankings as much as possible. We worked hard and we made huge strides in improving our game…and BOOM. Suddenly we were right on the cusp of playoffs. Being so close was definitely a motivator for our 2016 season. We’ve been training hard, both on skates and off-skates. We took great care in designing our 2016 season to give us our best shot at making playoffs. We’ve been hungry for it. Apparently so hungry that we completely overshot…landing us right in D1! Oops!
I think the important thing for teams to remember when they fall short of playoffs, or any other major goal, is to not get discouraged. You’re allowed to be disappointed, but you have to think about what comes next. What can you learn from your past season? We took time to think about and discuss what our major weaknesses were as a team — the things that we could work on in the off-season to come back stronger the next year. I think that was really key to the improvement we’ve experienced since this time last year. And don’t forget to celebrate all that you’ve accomplished, even if you fall short of your goal! For us, it was important to be proud of how far we had come, especially as a relatively young league.
You have won 11 sanctioned games in a row after dropping your year opener to Ohio. What do you attribute your big year to? What has been the focus?
Honestly, we’re still in a bit of shock that this season has been such a success! When we were scheduling our 2016 season, the team had a conversation that basically amounted to us needing to be ready for a really tough year and to mentally prepare for a season with a lot of losses (but also a lot of learning!). We knew 2016 was going to be a challenge — and it has been — but our hard work has really paid off, and we have far surpassed even our own expectations! I would have to attribute the success to the unwavering commitment of each and every team member. One of the most important things is that we’re all on the same page — we all want to be the best team we can be and are willing to put in the hard work to get there. We have a central goal every game that has been a kind of mantra for the team: PLAY ONE HOUR OF OUR BEST ROLLER DERBY. Considering how much time we each pour into this sport outside of game day, one single hour seems doable. Crushable, even. We approach each game like the toughest game of the season, which inspires us to bring our best to the track. We strive to make each jam our best jam.
After what game this year did it finally set in that you were going to go from outside of Playoffs straight to D1 Playoffs?
It’s been a process. It started after Skate to Thrill back in April. We performed very well that weekend, coming away with a full sweep of three wins after being projected to lose at least two of them. Our numbers from that weekend were mind-blowing to us. Two of the three WFTDA scores we earned were higher than any other score we’d earned EVER. Back in April, Andrew Marron, the coach of Ohio, predicted that we’d be a contender for D1 — a prediction that, on our side, was mostly met with a lot of blushing, dropped jaws, and nervous, maniacal laughter. But after Skate to Thrill, we started looking around at each other asking, “WHAT ARE WE DOING?! WHAT HAVE WE DONE?!” It was almost like a joke at first: “Wouldn’t it be CRAZY if we ended up in D1?!” But after every game our average crept higher and higher, and it started to become reality. It became clear that our high scores weren’t flukes or simply the result of a strategically planned schedule. We actually had a conversation back in May as a team where we acknowledged that D1 was a possibility, and while the idea made us nervous as hell at first, the overwhelming response was still “YES, LET’S GO FOR IT!” And we’ve been working for it. Looking at our current ranking, it all still feels a little surreal, but we are definitely coming to terms with this crazy new challenge that will be D1 Playoffs. If you ask us about it, there may be more of that blushing and maniacal laughter, but we are working on allowing ourselves to recognize that this is actually where we belong. The fight against impostor syndrome is real! Like I said, it’s a process. But don’t you worry — come September, we’ll be ready to show the world what we’ve got.
In the goals that you have made for the team, does the team want more than just an invite to Playoffs? Are you looking to surprise people at Playoffs ?
We have really been focused on getting ourselves to Playoffs, so now that we’ve solidified our spot in the top 40, it will be time for us to reassess and set new goals, both for our post-season training and for our participation in Playoffs. I hate to be a bore, but I’d bank on our goal being the same as it has been all year: to play our best roller derby! I know that if we focus on bringing our best to the track and stay true to playing our game, we will have success. If winning is part of that success, awesome! If we get our butts kicked, that’s cool too — it doesn’t diminish the tremendous amount of work we’ve done to get to where we are. We are so excited for this opportunity to play the sport we love against challenging teams and learn how to continue improving as skaters and as a team. So, I don’t know if we’re looking to surprise people necessarily, but I know that we hope to give a good showing of what our very best roller derby looks like.
Slamlet, #187, is a co-captain and trainer for the Brawlstars, and when she isn’t playing roller derby you can find her reading novels about the end of the world, narrating the internal dialogue of video game characters, and writing feminist rants. Check out her blog here: https://inknotblood.wordpress.com.