Cowpie Classic in Steamboat Springs is a regional rugby tradition | AspenTimes.com

Cowpie Classic in Steamboat Springs is a regional rugby tradition

Leah Vann
Steamboat Today

Aspen rugby hosts Steamboat Springs earlier this summer at Rio Grande Park.

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Folklore has it that 44 years ago, the Steamboat Fighting Bull Trout men's rugby club was going to host its first tournament at the rodeo grounds.

But the cows from the rodeo got loose, so before the tournament, players had to pick up the cowpies that were left behind.

And ever since, the Steamboat rugby club has called its annual rugby tournament the Cowpie Classic.

The trophy is different each year, and even handcrafted by a member of the team. One year it was a bronze cowpie, another was a cowpie framed in glass. The tournament is now held at the ski town fields, where the uprights are fastened out of pine trees.

"It's part of the tradition — we go and cut down pine trees to use as goal posts," captain Jason Troyer said. "Which is fun. The irregularities make it more challenging."

Troyer, 30, has been playing rugby in Steamboat for seven years, but started when he was 16 in the Roaring Fork Valley.

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"When I was growing up, the Aspen Gentlemen were kind of the talk of the state, winning national tournaments," Troyer said. "Some of those guys wanted to help younger kids get involved, so I was a part of the inaugural season for the Junior Gentlemen at 16."

The Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Club has been one of the Bull Trout's toughest competitors, but due to low numbers because of injuries will not compete Saturday in Steamboat. The Bull Trout defeated Aspen in its season opener last month, 38-27, after falling to the Gentlemen last year, 66-19.

The list of contenders include regional teams from Wyoming, Vail, Breckenridge and even further. Then, a traditional 35-and-older group called the Old Boys will play at 12:40 p.m., featuring members of Steamboat's earliest teams against those from Boulder.

"Some of these players haven't played in five to 10 years," Troyer said. "It gets those guys who helped create the club to meet the new guys."

One of those new guys is player and coach, Michael Hickey.

Hickey, 33, spent three years as an assistant coach in New York, but has traveled down to compete in Cowpie for the past two years to play with the Bull Trout. Joining Hickey as one of the new additions is Lamoni Tongo Tongo, a former member of the Austin Huns, the 2017 USA Rugby champions.

Together, the two have worked on implementing a new offense to help bring the Cowpie title back home for the first time since 2012.

"We've introduced a much more dynamic attacking pattern, spent a lot more time putting points on the board than defense," Hickey said. "We don't have the biggest bodies, so we need to exploit our advantages, which are speed and space."

Every year, the Bull Trout also welcome sub-players from all over who just want to compete in the storied tournament. That's how Hickey got started before moving to Steamboat permanently.

"They help pick us up where we're falling short," Troyer said. "Couple of rookies get tired and need rejuvenation. It's a very helpful tool."

The Steamboat Bull Trout will start play at 8:40 a.m., along with the women's team, the Steamboat Heifers. Each team will play at least three games before the remaining teams advance to the finals.

It's an all-day affair that concludes with a toga party hosted by Sunpie's Bistro in downtown Steamboat Springs.

lvann@steamboattoday.com