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Aspen wins Division I rugby crown

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Marty Waititi Aspen center Simon Dogbe looks to pass during Sunday's Division I rugby championship game against the Las Vegas Blackjacks in Glendale.
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ASPEN ” They played all of their home games in Denver because of inclement weather and never once had a full-squad practice. They were hampered by injuries and a sluggish economy that complicated nation-wide recruiting efforts. They entered the Division I rugby playoffs as the 14th seed in a field of 16.

The Gentlemen of Aspen overcame colossal odds this spring. And then some.

“We had a lot of obstacles, a lot of things we had to overcome along the way,” Gents head coach Fred Waititi said Tuesday. “You know, it never fazed us. It was about accepting what we had to deal with and getting on with it. We decided we could either let it pull us down or pull us together.”

They chose the latter. Aspen prevailed in the early rounds to advance to this past weekend’s Division I final four in Glendale. Once there, they took advantage of the opportunity, outscoring opponents Atlanta and Las Vegas by a combined total of 95-21 to claim the title ” the club’s first in six years and eighth overall.

The Gents have won two national championships in the last nine months; they are the reigning National Sevens title holders, and are the first club to hold both honors simultaneously, Waititi said.

Not bad for a group the coach affectionately refers to as a “bunch of nobodies.”

“A lot of other teams have well-known players and big budgets … we have to buy our own beer,” Waititi joked. “We had to fight hard for each other just to be able to compete. It’s a tribute to the players the way they came together and what they accomplished.”

Two weeks after surviving a bruising bout with Los Angeles to advance to the round of four, the Gents emerged as a contender from the start in Glendale. They broke a scoreless tie just 10 minutes into the first half in Friday’s game against Atlanta, and jumped out to a 40-point lead at the break. They cruised to a 70-16 victory.

“It’s easy to get there and let the occasion be bigger than the actual game,” Waititi said. “We didn’t do that. … We never gave them a chance. … We got them back on their feet right from the start and built some pretty good momentum for ourselves. It was a really good confidence booster.”

That momentum carried into Sunday’s final. Aspen overcame missed opportunities during a tight first half, scoring three timely tries in the second half to pull away. Hayden Mexted stretched the lead 10 minutes into the second when he finished off a long Gents possession. Merritt Johnson followed 15 minutes later, finding some space out wide and diving past the try line, stretching the lead to 17-3. The Gents pushed the ball wide again soon after, and fullback Matt Hurley dove in for the try near the goalpost to all but seal the match.

Aspen hoisted the trophy soon after. Later, they celebrated with a few pints at a Denver bar owned by a Gents Old Boy.

“You always go into the finals with a chance, but you do need a bit of luck, too,” Waititi said. “The way this weekend turned out was pretty pleasing.”

And somewhat unexpected. Just three years ago, Aspen had just 10 full-time members and had to enlist the help of clubs in Vail and Steamboat Springs to fill out the roster.

“I was taking over something that looked like it was about to fold up,” Waititi said. “I didn’t know how long it was going to last.

“It’s been fun and frustrating. At times, I’ve wondered what the hell I’m doing.”

The Gents lost in Division I’s round of 16 last spring. This season, they vied for a national title with a roster largely comprised of players from the valley. The dry current job market all but dashed recruiting efforts across the country, the lifeblood of the club in years past.

No obstacle, it seems, was too big to overcome.

“All year we had to battle against some things other teams and other players would’ve folded against,” Waititi said. “I never doubted the character on this team.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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