Gentlemen of Aspen take second at national 7’s tournament | AspenTimes.com

Gentlemen of Aspen take second at national 7’s tournament

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

SAN FRANCISCO – Gentlemen of Aspen head coach Andy Katoa’s message was simple.

“We’re fine. Everything is good,” he said to his players, who huddled at midfield during halftime of Sunday’s USA Rugby men’s club 7’s championship in San Francisco. “We’ve been in this situation before.”

Just one year ago, Aspen erased a 17-5 second-half deficit against Belmont Shore (Calif.), stripping the ball in the final two minutes and converting a try to seal the club’s first national 7’s title. This time around, against the same Belmont squad, the Gents faced a much more daunting task: They trailed, 24-0, after the first of two 10-minute halves.

“I truly believed we could do it,” Katoa said Wednesday.

It was not meant to be this time, however. While Aspen pulled to within 14 points in the second half, Belmont quelled the short-lived rally attempt and went on to avenge 2008’s loss with a 34-15 victory.

“I thought our preparation was good, and I thought we were ready going into that game,” Katoa said. “Like I always say, 7’s rugby is all about the way the ball bounces. I’ve always believed that. … It went straight in their direction.”

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The ball has bounced Aspen’s way more often than not of late. Just a few years removed from struggling to find enough players to field a team, the club snuck up on the field in last year’s 7’s tournament. Nine months later, they clinched the Division 1 title in Glendale, becoming the first club team to ever hold both crowns concurrently.

While disappointment abounded in the moments after Sunday’s final, Katoa said it dissipated quickly. Last year, the Gents returned to national prominence. This time around, they proved they have staying power.

“Our goal has always been to get to this level and stay at this level. To win last year and then got back to the final game, even if we didn’t win, is still an accomplishment … It took a group effort, a community effort,” Katoa said. “The talent level there was just exceptional. The youth, the speed, the strength. … I’m really proud of these guys. They were still fighting all the way until the end.”

The Gents, one of 16 teams to make it to San Francisco, cruised in Saturday’s pool play, outscoring Boston, Milwaukee and Atlanta by a combined 85-12.

After opening Sunday with a 26-10 quarterfinal win over San Francisco, Aspen narrowly escaped in the semifinals against New York. Mike Palefau and Jason Pye erased a deficit with two second-half tries to give the Gents a 17-12 victory.

“We matched up all the way through,” Katoa said. “It was tighter in the fact that not only did the defense have to buckle down, but we really had to keep the ball. They had a bunch of playmakers on their side.

“Once we got to Sunday, each game we were playing was very, very crucial. You’ve got to play each as the final, because if you lose, you’re out. The boys responded with some great individual efforts.”

The strong play that propelled Aspen into the finals disappeared in the opening minutes against Belmont, Katoa said.

“After the first half, we were not shocked, but we knew our kids had to play more solid, fundamental rugby,” he added. “We got in desperation mode and made more mistakes. We were rushing the ball and missing assignments. … They did everything possible they could to win, and we did everything we could to keep up and stay in the game.

“You like to come out with a good showing, but it just wasn’t our day.”

Despite the unfavorable final result, the trip’s poignant moments will endure. Moments like tailgating in the parking lot after Saturday’s games with former player Patrick Culley, who broke his neck in a Super League match in Boston in 2004 and was paralyzed. Moments like visiting Pete Hinojosa, a friend of Katoa’s who is battling with Lou Gehrig’s disease, before leaving for San Francisco.

“[The trip] started off as something that was very life learning. … I wanted the guys to know they can’t take anything for granted,” Katoa said. “I told them it’s not always about rugby. You have to stay true to the game and treat people right.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com