Gents of Aspen building for future
July 19, 2012
ASPEN – The Gentlemen of Aspen sevens squad was hoping a strong showing at this weekend’s tournament in Denver would help it clinch a nationals berth – its 10th in 12 years since the program was developed.
Instead, because of a recent string of inconsistent play, the Gents’ postseason hopes already have been extinguished. That’s just fine with Andy Katoa. He’s building for the future.
He’s building for Rio de Janeiro.
The Aspen coach currently is in his third season as an assistant with the U.S. sevens squad. His primary responsibility is identifying and grooming athletes to bolster the national team’s chances of qualifying for the 2016 Summer Olympics, where rugby will be making its first appearance since 1924.
Aspen will play an integral role in that process, Katoa said Wednesday.
“We’re planning to have two developmental squads for the national team, one here in Aspen and one somewhere on the East Coast,” he said, adding that the partnership will help revitalize an Aspen rugby program that has struggled of late.
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“This is the perfect opportunity for Aspen rugby to get back into the national spotlight,” he continued. “What a way to help build our 15s program, too. The majority of the athletes we bring here will be able to go into the national team but also will have the opportunity to stay, play quality 15s rugby and prepare themselves for the sevens season. And look around – you can’t get a better place to come.”
Aspen was targeted as a developmental site, Katoa said, because of its facilities, its community support and its long-established track record for luring some of America’s top young rugby players to the mountains.
Newly installed national head coach Alexander Magleby just happens to be a former Gent, too.
“The Aspen Skiing Co. is helping us with housing, and we have a professional medical staff with Aspen Sports Medicine,” Katoa said. “Everything is already in place.”
This summer, Katoa has assembled a group from colleges across the country – the University of Nebraska, UC Santa Barbara and St. Mary’s, among others – as well as players who hail from Fiji, American Samoa and Tonga.
“Anyone with a U.S. passport qualifies, and my job is to get the best players I possibly can on our squad,” Katoa said.
That includes stars from other sports. The current roster includes James Aldridge, a former fullback at Notre Dame, and Carlin Isles, a former running back at Ashland University (Ohio) and one-time Olympic track hopeful whom Rugby Magazine recently labeled “The fastest man in American rugby.”
“The guy runs a 10.1 (second) 100,” Katoa said. “He was on the U.S.’ track team but saw that his numbers weren’t going to work out. He wants to be an Olympian and saw this as his way, so he approached us. … He’s only been playing rugby for two months.”
Isles showed off that speed during a tournament in Kansas City earlier this month. In a quarterfinal bout with the rival Denver Barbarians, the wing turned the corner, blew past a defender who appeared to have an angle on him and sprinted 80 meters for a try to square the game at 19 as regulation expired.
The Gents came up short in overtime. The loss effectively quashed Aspen’s nationals aspirations.
Two weeks earlier, the Gents opened play in Houston with wins over the Kansas City Rogues and Dallas Harlequins but lost back-to-back matches with Glendale and the Kansas City Blues.
“I don’t like to say we’re rebuilding, but we needed some time to jell and just ran out of time,” Katoa admitted. “You can’t go into a qualifier for national championships with that being your first game. The kids we brought here are very talented, but the inexperience caught up to us.”
The squad is slated to compete in Denver this weekend, then finish out the 15s season and compete in Ruggerfest in mid-September. Plans already are in the works for an international sevens tournament, which Katoa said will take place in Aspen next summer.
“My main focus is helping to build on the rugby culture here and build a foundation for the U.S. team,” Katoa said. “A lot of people don’t realize this, but U.S. rugby has so much potential. We’re knocking on the door of competing with all the top teams in the world. The future is bright, and this is just the start.”
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