SlammerHead poses for her official 2022 team picture ahead of the Taunt’s spring season. PHOTOS COURTESY LILLY HEAD

It was an instant love affair.

All it took was one whip around the oval track at age 11. Lilly Head knew right then and there that roller derby was going to be her thing.

She and her family had just arrived to Bluffton from Ohio when she saw an ad for a tryout for the Savannah Junior Derby Taunts.

The budding artist and animator had tried gymnastics, soccer and swimming, but this was a spot where she could put her passion for rollerblading to good use.

“It’s so different from any other sport I’ve played. I love to challenge how fast I can go and I found real quick that I loved to hit and get hit,” Head said. “It was incredible to have such a different experience. After that first practice, I knew I was hooked.”

Four years later, Lilly has emerged as a rising star on the Taunts, chosen as the team’s jammer, the roller derby equivalent of a quarterback.

The jammer is the player that is tasked with scoring the team’s points with the help of a line of blockers and a crew of teammates that grasp her hand and thrust her ahead of the opposing pack. Like a QB, the jammer must see the entire oval to identify the breaks in coverage and the optimum path to points.

Lilly is known for her speed, crucial in gaining a point for each opponent she passes during a jam.

When she heads to Savannah’s Star Castle, the normally shy and reserved May River High School freshman transforms into SlammerHead, the alter ego she chose to complete the nicknaming rite of passage for each Taunts team member.

“I initially chose Brutal Bug, because my Mom calls me Lilly Bug, but I love sharks and that name just fit my on-track personality better,” Lilly said. “I had already dyed my hair but add in the war paint on our faces and it just hypes me up for battle.”

The 15-year-old’s mother, Heather, said seeing the transformation brings tears of joy each and every time.

“What is so special is that all of these girls come from all over the region, each one of them as shy as the next. A lot of them struggled to fit in and find their place just like Lilly,” Heather said. “But together, they are perfect. Some at school might try to call these girls freaks. But on the track, they embrace being freaks, they love it. That label empowers them and to see that as a parent, it is so incredible.”

Lilly said that she feels truly blessed to have found her people.

“Outside the track, it’s hard. We’re all trying to figure out who we are. But on the oval, I found my tribe,” she said. “We love being freaks together. These are the best friends I have ever had.”

When she first joined the Taunts, Lilly tried every position. Her speed, agility and body type proved to be a perfect fit for jammer. But to play the position and truly transform into SlammerHead, she had to overcome a slew of long-standing fears.

“She is not a touchy-feely person, but in her role, she has to be comfortable grasping her teammates’ hands and depending on other people,” Heather said. “It’s why I get so emotional at each and every game.”

Lilly said that balancing and focusing on different parts of the track has been the hardest part of the game to learn. The rules were easy to pick up, as was the endurance needed to power through each game’s two 30-minute periods. She wears the jammer star on her helmet cover proudly, but knows she has much still to learn as she tries to perfect her position.

There are many tactics for her to learn, like pushing through gaps in the blocker walls, evading blockers, juking (a quick shift to the other side of the track) and – like a running back – learning to follow her blockers’ through holes in the wall.

The most important and difficult “pro move” is the apex jump, where you use the inside curve of the track to leap out of bounds and back in bounds to pass players.

“To really earn that star on my helmet, I need to be jumping the apex consistently,” Lilly said.

Still, SlammerHead knows she has come a long way from that first practice. She is having fun showing the ropes to new teammates.

“Beginning can be real intimidating. The first step is to just complete a lap without falling. Then you learn the correct way to fall, to fall forward and tuck your fingers into your hands so to not run them over,” Lilly said.

When not at practice twice a week, Lilly is constantly watching roller derby YouTube videos and rollerblading as much as she can. She said that the adult players, the Derby Devils, are all super helpful in showing the Taunts new moves and tips. A handful of Devils players serve as Taunts coaches.

“They are all there to keep us moving along, but they are especially helpful with the fresh meat,” Lilly said.

“Fresh meat” is the official term for the newbie players, which includes fellow Blufftonian Reese Alpaugh, a second grader. She joined the team after seeing the Taunts march in the Bluffton Christmas Parade and was promoted ahead of the team’s April 30 season opener.

SlammerHead is excited to begin the new season, which will be the first time the team has played in front of crowds since the beginning of the pandemic. She has enjoyed getting to know the Southeast as the team has traveled from south Florida to Atlanta to Charleston.

Lilly is looking to continue her roller derby career past high school. She plans to attend college in Georgia and continue to play collegiately.

“Why would I stop? I found that one thing that makes me happy and a group where I can be me,” Lilly said. “There are bumps and bruises and injuries, but that’s all temporary. This is always good for my soul.”

Tim Wood is a veteran journalist based in Bluffton. Contact him at timwood@blufftonsun.com.