Aspen rugby: Home is where the hurt is
ASPEN ” Aspen and rugby go together like the Fourth of July and fireworks.
It seems fitting, then, that after three games on the road, the Gentleman of Aspen will take to their home pitch Friday for the first time this summer against none other than longtime rival Vail.
Both teams will march in Aspen’s Independence Day Parade down Main Street, then, as Vail coach Steve MacKinnon put it, “we’ll put our friendship on hold for 80 minutes” starting at 4 p.m. when the match kicks off at Wagner Park.
A win for Vail for would give the visitors the inside track for the Mountain League crown, which the Blue and White last won in 2006. An Aspen win would create a three-way logjam atop the league standings, with Aspen, Vail and defending-champion Steamboat Springs each sharing a loss.
Vail enters the match at 3-0, which includes a signature 31-13 win on the road over Steamboat Springs three weeks ago. The Gents (2-1) lost to the same club two weeks ago, 20-17, in a physical match that came down to a final defensive stand.
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Aspen owns the bragging rights from the last match against Vail, however, in what is the mountain league’s most storied rivalry. The Gents hung 50 points on the Blue and White at the end of last summer, earning a 32-point win that helped take the sting off an uncharacteristic third-place league finish.
When asked for a prediction for Friday’s match, Aspen coach Fred Waititi made sure not to give his old club any bulletin board material. Waititi expects big crowds and a tight battle, but offered up little past that.
“Whoever wins, it’s going to go a long way with everyone taking a loss at some time over the season,” he said. “It’s going to be a game when us one us can cement our position. It’s going to be a hard-fought one.”
MacKinnon said he expects the best defensive team to walk away with the victory.
“We’ve certainly worked on our defense over the past few weeks,” he said. “We’ve got a stronger forward pack and they’ve got a better back line. We want to pack it in and they want to spread it wide. Our plan is to keep the ball and keep possession. If we’ve got the ball, their back line can’t do much about it.”
Waititi and MacKinnon both said the rivalry between Vail and Aspen is unique. The two clubs represent two fiercely-proud ski towns, and historically, have been the two best teams in the summer mountain league.
On both sides, there is mutual respect. Especially when Vail players have helped Aspen fill out a team the last two springs to compete nationally at the Division I club level.
“It’s become a rivalry between towns as much as teams,” Waititi said. “To not respect them would be to our detriment. We’ve played with their players over the last few years and they have helped our club. This game is a game of mate against mate. It’s physical, and they’re usually fearless.”
“Aspen is always our toughest game of the year,” MacKinnon added. “In the last few years, other clubs in the league have started to come up and compete as well. You certainly saw that with Steamboat last year, whose only defeat was to Aspen. There’s a Vail-Steamboat rivalry now, and the league’s really competitive, but this Aspen-Vail rivalry is the one that will always be strong.”
MacKinnon then added that he expects Aspen to play its best match of the summer, given the circumstances.
“They bring out the big guns against us, especially when they’re playing at home,” he said. “If we’re not playing our top game, we’ll lose.”
“We’re looking forward to running out on the park in front of our home crowd,” Waititi added. “Hopefully a good sized crowd. All the lads have played in front of large crowds, but for some of them, this might be the largest crowd they’ll ever play in front of.”
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The Basalt High School cross country team traveled to California this past week to compete in the 2021 Woodbridge Cross Country Classic, hosted by Woodbridge High School just outside of Los Angeles. The race was held at the SilverLakes Sports Complex in Norco.