A new season for Gentlemen of Aspen
ASPEN ” After years of enjoying the view from the top, the Gentleman of Aspen got their first good look at the bottom last summer.
The first loss in club history to perennial Rocky Mountain Rugby League (RMRL) punching bag Glenwood Springs was, unquestionably, the low point of 40 years of summer rugby in Aspen.
It was also a well-deserved lesson, said Aspen coach Fred Waititi.
“The good thing about the league we’re playing in now is that there’s no pushover games,” he said. “We’re all pretty evenly matched.”
Not that Waititi and his charges are content with staying with the rest of the pack. After the loss to Glenwood Springs, Aspen regrouped and turned in a respectable finish in last summer’s league race. The Gents avenged the loss to Glenwood in the rematch and capped off their season with a convincing 50-18 victory over rival Vail ” Aspen’s first in three tries.
Now, the task for Waititi and the Gents is to build upon that momentum heading into Saturday’s league opener in Breckenridge against the Blue Goose. Aspen is fresh off a strong showing in its second Division I spring season, where two weeks ago it lost in the Sweet 16 of the national playoffs to the country’s top-ranked side.
Players from Steamboat Springs and Vail who teamed with Aspen this spring have returned to their respective summer sides, although the Gents have retained a core group of about a dozen players, Waititi said.
To fill out the rest of its summer roster, the club has done its usual recruiting both nationally and locally.
Among the haul of recruits are some club college players hailing from the likes of Oklahoma and the University of Buffalo, as well some hand-picked locals. One recognizable face at Tuesday’s practice at Rio Grande Park was Steve Nelson, the vice principal of Aspen Middle School.
While Nelson’s rugby experience is limited (one season in college), he doesn’t lack any experience running with an oblong ball or tackling. Before going into education, he played fullback and linebacker for the Calgary Stampeders of the Canadian Football League.
“Some of the kids got me interested,” said Nelson, who will likely play flanker this summer. “Coach here, he’s got a daughter in school. I think they looked at me and said, ‘You look like you could hurt somebody.'”
Matt Doubek, a strapping second-row player who originally hails from Chicago, said the emphasis so far in practices leading up to Saturday’s match has been to build chemistry among the club’s veterans and new players.
“It’s always easier to play with guys who you’ve played with before because you know their tendencies,” said Doubek, who joined Aspen’s club last summer and played through the Division I spring season. “You know what they’re going to do when they have the ball, when they don’t have the ball. The first couple of games, we’ll probably be figuring that stuff out. The guys are still getting used to each other.”
Even with the learning curve, expectations ” as always ” remain high for the local side.
Pat Boice, a flanker who will be a junior in the fall at the University of Buffalo, said Aspen’s winning tradition and history is one of the reasons he decided to venture out to Colorado this summer.
“I’ve heard of the Super League, the winning tradition they had there, and I heard they had a great year this year in (Division I),” he said.
Aside from “the altitude kicking his butt,” Boice said, so far, everything about the club has met expectations.
“The team is run well, and it’s a good coach” he said. “With all these guys, a lot of them have played all around the world. There’s a lot I can learn from them.”
Doubek made it clear that Aspen’s ultimate goal is to win the league title, something it hasn’t done the previous two summers after a run of sustained dominance.
The Gents certainly have their work cut out for them. Vail won the RMRL title in 2006, while last season Steamboat Springs was the surprise of the league, shedding its bottom dweller status to finish 15-1 and claim its first championship.
The defending champs return their top players from a year ago, including four players who played with Aspen this spring: Michael Hurley, Shane Dooley, Charlie Pappas and Chris Baumann.
In a recent article in the Steamboat Springs Pilot and Today, Hurley admitted that his club won’t sneak up on anyone this summer.
“We’re now the team to beat,” he said. “Aspen wants the top three. Vail is certainly gunning to get their place back. Glenwood’s got a bunch of new recruits, and Breckenridge has a new coach. There’s a target on our back.”
While Aspen’s dominance was nice while it lasted, Waititi said it’s better for all parties that the league has seen more parity in recent years. Across the board, the recruiting and organization is better ” and as a result, the rugby is much more competitive.
“I think it’s the best thing that can happen to our area,” Waititi said. “I think those days [of Aspen dominating] are long gone.”
Aspen can take credit for the league’s parity arguably more than any other club, Waititi added, before noting that the visiting players who joined Aspen’s Division I side this spring have only made their respective summer sides better.
“With Division I, the whole idea was the last couple of years was to not only help ourselves out, but help all of us out,” Waititi said. “We’ll all get better.”
Following a pause, he added: “With the level of the teams in the league, it’s going to be a fun summer.”
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