By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — What do you get when you take a NASCAR race, replace the cars with women on roller skates and incorporate as much hip- and body-checking as you’d find in your average professional hockey game?
You get roller derby. And the MacTown Sugar Skulls, McAlester’s new roller derby team, could be competing as early as April or May at Route 69 Roller Dome.
“I think they’re going to be ready to play in the spring,” Sugar Skulls coach Katie Hoff said Thursday. “They’re moving really fast and they’ve all been practicing really hard.”
Hoff said the Sugar Skulls began practicing in October. She said approximately 15-20 women, all at least 18 years old, have shown up for twice-a-week practices, and may have also put in extra time on off days to learn the game.
“You have to learn a lot of basic skating moves, and then we’ll start scrimmaging,” Hoff said.
“We actually just started doing some hitting drills, where we learned how to hit properly and how to fall properly. The more they do that, the better they’ll get.”
A standard roller derby match is composed of two 30-minute halves, and the team with the most points at the end of the second half wins. Each half is then broken down into rounds known as “jams,” with 10 skaters on the track at the same time.
Teams score points by having one of their skaters, called the “jammer,” complete a full circuit around the track, then try to skate past the opposing team’s four “blockers.” The eight total blockers form a pack, and for every opposing blocker a jammer — usually identified by a star on her helmet — passes, she earns her team one point.
“The first jammer to make it through the pack legally is considered the lead jammer, and the lead jammer can call the jam off at any time,” Hoff said.
While both jammers can score for their teams, controlling when the jam ends is a strategic advantage, as a jammer needing just a few points late in the match can end the jam as soon as she gets them. A jammer finding it particularly easy to pass through a pack in which her opponent’s struggling, on the other hand, could opt to let the jam continue as she racks up points.
Lead jammers usually end jams by touching their hands to their hips.
While jammers try to navigate through the pack, the blockers try to stop them. Tripping and elbowing can land a player in the penalty box, but anything short of that is usually fine, and derbies often become pretty physical.
“You can use your entire body to slam somebody as long as you keep your elbow in,” Hoff said.
“You really have to have strong blockers to help your jammer get through, and you have to have strong blockers to stop the other jammer from scoring. ... You have to have good jammers and good blockers for the game to work.”
Because so many Sugar Skulls are new to the sport, Hoff said its not yet known who will be the team’s jammers and who will be the blockers.
Hoff herself has been skating for the last three and a half years with the South Central Roller Girls in Ada. She said a friend living in McAlester contacted her about coaching here.
“I think they’ll do really well,” Hoff said of the Sugar Skulls, but first they’ll need to overcome their inexperience. The Sugar Skulls are by far the newest of the approximately 12 competitive roller derby teams in Oklahoma.
Hoff said she learned of roller derby through the 2009 film “Whip It,” then attended a live match in Stillwater before joining the Roller Girls.
“It’s been fun,” she said. “I really enjoy it.”
Hoff competes with the nickname “Hoff the Chain.” Nicknames are fairly common in roller derby nationwide, but in the past players have often opted for vulgar, violent or obscene nicknames.
Hoff said that phenomenon is slowly disappearing as the sport tries to appeal more to families and children. That’s also why most leagues now follow a set of rules written by the Women’s Flat Track Derby Association.
“Now it’s more like a regular sport,” Hoff said. “There are rules and stuff and we try to keep everyone safe.”
Hoff added that doesn’t mean skaters avoid physical contact, but now the physicality doesn’t cross the line into brutality quite as often.
This will be Hoff’s first time coaching a roller derby team, she said, and the squad hopes to be ready to go by the spring. To help the team cover expenses such as travel and rink rentals for home matches, Hoff said the Sugar Skulls will hold fundraisers in the coming months.
Hoff said the team has yet to decide on the exact nature of the fundraisers they’ll hold. But assuming the Sugar Skulls stay on track and start competing in the spring, fans in and around McAlester will soon get to experience a sport unlike any other.
Contact Matt Goisman at firstname.lastname@example.org.