Aspen rugby still savoring national title
August 16, 2008
For Simon Dogbe and the rest of the young members of the Gentlemen of Aspen, the stories about the glory days of the town’s rugby club were, as Dogbe put it, frankly getting a little old.
“I came here in 2001 and was one of the young guys when we were still winning Super League titles,” Dogbe said. “Ever since those days, it’s always been the same thing. The old boys are very vocal about winning so many times, and how Aspen used to be this great club.”
Now, as Dogbe added, “Used to” doesn’t apply any more. After a shocking run to the national title last weekend at the USA Rugby Senior Men’s Club 7’s Championships in San Francisco, a new generation of Gents have their own tale of triumph to hang their hats on.
“It was huge to win our own one,” Dogbe said of Aspen’s last-second 26-24 win over Belmont Shore (Calif.) in Sunday’s final. “To put our own stamp on one. We don’t have to hear about how good Aspen was. We can say how good Aspen is.”
Captain Merritt Johnson put it more succinctly.
“This marks a new beginning for Aspen,” he said.
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It also marks a new first for a club steeped in history.
While Aspen’s 15-man sides won a combined seven national titles between 1997 and 2002 while competing in the national Super League, USA Rugby’s top division, and later, the combined USA Rugby Super League, those prolific Gents teams never won a 7’s title.
Aspen also became the first team from the country’s Western Division to win a 7’s title, Dogbe said.
For Gents head coach Fred Waititi, the championship was the culmination of years of hard work rebuilding a club whose tradition of success, at times, impeded its own development.
“After the tough seasons we’ve had the last few years, after all the struggles we went through trying to get players to give us a commitment, this win means we’ve finally crossed over from the old guard,” said Waititi, who worked alongside fellow coach Andrew Katoa to recruit and shape a team of talented young individuals into a winner. “Everyone around town knows what the team of Aspen used to be. Six years later, these young guys have created their own piece of history with the club.”
The Gents did it with excellent team defense.
Played on a regular size pitch, but with only seven players and quick seven-minute halves, the 7’s game is distinctly different from traditional 15-man rugby. With more room to run, the emphasis is typically on offense, with matches commonly ending with both teams in double digits.
The secret to Aspen’s win however, was to ignore conventional wisdom in favor of its strength as a team.
Johnson, Waititi and Merritt all agreed that Aspen didn’t have the best individual talent entering the championships, but surprised its competition with its selfless play.
“Man for man, player for players, we were probably the third best team there,” Dogbe said. “But we played as the best team there. The other teams didn’t jell as well we did. … Everyone knew their roles and stuck to it.”
Aspen went 3-0 in a pool that featured two finalists ” the Chicago Lions and San Diego OMBAC ” from 2007, then routed Daytona Beach, 26-0, in the quarterfinal round. In its semifinal against Northern Virginia Nova, two key early stops propelled Aspen to a 33-0 win.
Aspen’s defense then came up huge in the final against Belmont Shore, helping Aspen rally from a 17-5 deficit late in the second half. After trading tries and conversions, Aspen trailed, 24-19, with two minutes to go. After Aspen kicked off, Belmont kicked the ball out of bounds, then won a line out and was driving down the pitch. The match turned when two Gents players stripped a Belmont player of the ball near midfield.
Aspen’s Jesse Pekkala snatched up the loose ball and was off and running to a match-trying try. From there, Teddy Omondi booted his second conversion of the half to give Aspen the win as time expired.
For a weekend full of surprising upsets, Aspen saved its best for last.
“We weren’t known,” Johnson said. “Most of our team, nobody had heard of us before. We have one current guy on the national team, Mike Palefau, another former Eagle, Tim Omi, and then Teddy, who’s known as a 7’s player. Those three guys were the only three that anybody really knew. The rest of, nobody knew us. We were a complete underdog. We weren’t even expected to win one game.”
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