Gentlemen of Aspen keep on winning |

Gentlemen of Aspen keep on winning

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – The Gentlemen of Aspen’s 7’s squad got defensive.

After Brian Naqica was whistled for a yellow card in the waning minutes of the first half in Saturday’s rugby tournament semifinal in Kansas City, Aspen was forced to play a man down for almost four minutes against the rival Denver Barbarians.

The Gents held their ground against a Barbos team that had topped them twice in two previous meetings this summer – in tournament finals in Dallas and Commerce City. Then, captain Merritt Johnson turned a forced turnover into a long run and try in the second half to give Aspen the win.

The Gents parlayed that momentum into a thrilling come-from-behind effort in the final against the Glendale Raptors to seal the title – and a coveted spot in the 16-team national tournament, Aug. 14-17 in San Francisco.

Aspen is the reigning national champion.

“Our defense didn’t break. They played really well,” said Gents coach Andy Katoa on Wednesday. “Defense in 7’s, there’s a lot of communication involved and everyone has to be on the same page. When there’s a guy who is not, it really shows, and you get exploited. … I’m glad to see we pulled through.”

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Perseverance has been Aspen’s strong suit this season. Five starters were battling injuries in the weeks before the trip to Kansas City. And Saturday, the Gents were without national team member Mike Palefau, who had a scheduling conflict.

No matter. Aspen opened pool play with convincing wins over Kansas City and Dallas, utilizing some stingy defense that helped set up an explosive fast-break offensive attack.

“We came out with the game plan of just moving the ball and making sure everybody touches the ball,” Katoa said. “We let the ball do the work for us, and things started falling into place.”

That offense sputtered, however, in the third game against Glendale. The Raptors opted to play the stall game, holding the ball for extended stretches to limit the number of possessions.

The Gents did not make the necessary adjustments, Katoa said. They wound up losing, 14-7.

“We kind of got caught up in that,” Katoa said of Glendale’s deliberate pace. “We started real well in the first three minutes, but things went south quickly after that. … They took us out of the groove is what happened. We had times with the ball, but it seemed like we were rushing it, trying to make something happen. In the process we made some mistakes, and that cost us.”

Katoa intentionally exchanged few words with his players before the semifinal. He said he wanted to see how his players would react.

They responded in fine fashion. They overcame Naqica’s yellow card for a late tackle with sound defensive play, and scored late to advance to the final and set up a rematch with Glendale.

In the final, the two teams exchanged tries in the opening minutes before a string of Raptors injuries slowed the pace. When play did resume, Glendale again resorted to stall tactics and succeeded in taking over the lead, which it held deep into the second half.

Ryan Nichols changed all that. He faded out wide after Aspen took possession, received a pass and, injured groin and all, rumbled almost 70 meters for the tying try.

“He just put the motor on,” Katoa remembered. “It was pretty impressive.”

Johnson calmly converted the ensuing kick from just wide of the left post to seal the win as the final whistle sounded.

“It was pretty exciting to see the way we were just progressing throughout the whole day,” Katoa said. “I take my hat off to Glendale. They played really well. … It was a good win, and we earned it.”

Katoa and company hope there are more wins to come in mid August. For now, his team will rest and prepare for the final push.

“We didn’t just come out healthy, but we came out winning it and knowing that our defense is starting to gel,” Katoa said. “It’s been a tough road for us, an especially tough road … but we’re starting to come into form.”

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