Aspen Gents sevens squad feeling the pressure | AspenTimes.com

Aspen Gents sevens squad feeling the pressure

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Patrick Ghidossi/The Aspen TimesPeceli Rinakama of Fiji is one of only two players returning from last year's Gentlemen of Aspen sevens squad.

ASPEN – While his confidence is unwavering, Andy Katoa admits that the pressure is on.

The coach’s Gentlemen of Aspen sevens squad has qualified for nationals every year since the program was developed in 2001. That streak appears to be in jeopardy, however, after a string of inconsistent play two weeks ago during a qualifier in Kansas City.

The 2008 U.S. champions are banking on a strong showing in their last qualifier Saturday at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. They also will need some help if they are to secure a trip to early August’s nationals in San Francisco.

“We’ve kind of put ourselves up against a wall. A lot of things will have to happen for us to get through,” Katoa said Saturday. “A lot of other teams will have to fall into some unfortunate situations. Basically, they’re going to have to flat-out lose.”

In the meantime, Katoa is focusing on the things he can control, namely helping develop his young and relatively inexperienced roster. Aspen returns just two players (Merritt Johnson and Peceli Rinekama) from a squad that advanced to the semifinals in 2010 and the finals in 2009.

“I have to keep reminding myself we’ve got a lot of new kids … and I have to keep things simple, shrink it down and really stick to the fundamentals of catching, running and tackling,” Katoa said. “I’d say it’s a rebuilding year for us, but I like to use that term loosely. The talent is there, and I like to think we’ll always be able to compete with anyone.”

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That skill was on display – albeit sporadically – in Kansas City.

The Gents opened pool play with an impressive – and largely surprising – effort against the host Blues, Katoa said. While it was playing as a team for the first time, Aspen clicked from the outset, generated scores of connections, made accurate reads and dictated pace of play.

The result was a convincing victory.

“Things kind of all went right for us. It was almost scary, way too easy,” Katoa said. “It was kind of bad, because nothing went right for us after that. I think it gave us a little bit of a false impression going into that second game against the Denver Barbarians – our preparation was flat. It kind of turned out to be a basketball game with Denver doing all the scoring while we had no buckets.”

The Gents rebounded with a victory over the Omaha Goats in their pool-play finale, but were no match for Woodlands Elite from Texas in the semifinals.

“We had a couple chances to score right away, but we didn’t capitalize. The mistakes we made on those opportunities turned into scores going the other way,” Katoa said. “It was a simple passing skill to get the ball out to the wing so we can score. We missed the opportunity because of a bad pass and a dropped ball, and the ball bounced the other way and Dallas picked it up. The next thing you know, they’re up 14-0 in the first few minutes. To be honest, Woodlands just outclassed us.

“You have to play a lot together to get the timing down, get the feel with the other guys, build trust and camaraderie. It’s only seven-minute halves. If things don’t jell, it can be a very long seven minutes.”

While the result was disappointing and the growing pains obvious, Katoa did see signs of progress in Kansas City. The maturation continued at last weekend’s Cornhusker State Games in Lincoln, Neb.

There will be no margin for error Saturday, when Aspen will battle a stacked field that includes the Utah Warriors, the Olympic Club of San Francisco and the rival Barbos, among others.

“We’re going in there with every intention of making it to nationals,” Katoa said. “Our worst enemy now is time.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com

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