Despite relative youth, Aspen rugby club finishes as Mountain League champions
With a roster built on relative youth and inexperience, this could have been a difficult summer for the Gentlemen of Aspen Rugby Club under first-year coach Ben Mitchell. However, outside of one rough weekend up in Steamboat, it’s gone surprisingly well.
“It went by so quickly, but it’s been a really enjoyable summer. It’s been my first taste of coaching and I really enjoyed it. I think the whole team has had a really good summer,” said Mitchell, who came to the United States from Ireland and plays for the Austin Elite Rugby franchise. “This season it’s been more of a developmental sort of summer, but at the same time we’ve won the majority of our games and a lot of players have developed really well. It’s been really satisfying.”
The Gents are 9-2 overall this summer with a single game remaining, a Saturday rematch against Vail. That game is scheduled for 2 p.m. in Vail.
Aspen started the season 5-0, which included wins over Steamboat Springs and Vail, before a rough showing at Steamboat’s annual Cowpie tournament on July 13. The Gents went 1-2 while Steamboat went on to win its home tourney. So far, that’s the only blemish of the season for Aspen.
“We just didn’t show up with the right mental attitude that weekend and it really hurt us, but that performance wasn’t a reflection on the overall performance for the summer,” Mitchell said. “We wanted to show who the Gentlemen are, and we didn’t show that in Cowpie but we really showed that in Ski Town.”
Aspen had a week off to regroup before it went to the annual Ski Town tournament, hosted by Breckenridge this summer. The team played with an edge, beating Glenwood Springs and Breckenridge before rolling 44-15 over Steamboat in the final for the championship.
“It was rewarding to see us bounce back after a really disappointing showing in Steamboat,” Aspen player Rex Christensen said, “and to come back and beat them with a strong performance in the final.”
Christensen, a 2011 Aspen High School graduate who went to school at the University of Southern California, is among those younger players this summer. But, unlike many who may only be in Aspen for a few months each year, he truly understands what is at stake on Saturday against Vail.
Having already clinched the Mountain League championship, Aspen isn’t playing for any trophies or titles. But, it would mean a 10th win and would mean finishing the summer with a win over its biggest rival.
The teams played once this season on July 6, with Aspen winning 46-43 at Rio Grande Park thanks to a late penalty kick by Chris Campbell after the Gents mounted quite the second-half comeback against Vail.
“We obviously want to come out with a win and we got even more motivation that it’s against Vail,” Christensen said. “Born and bred here, I’ve always been a diehard anti-Vail person. We’ve done a lot to try and elaborate on the Aspen-Vail rivalry beyond just the pitch to a lot of these new kids. It was good to get a win the first time.”
After Saturday, the Gents will go on hiatus until they host the 52nd annual Aspen Ruggerfest tournament from Sept. 19 to 22. The Ruggerfest teams are typically a different group of players from the summer team, with a handful of holdovers.
Mitchell said he plans to coach the Gents during Ruggerfest. But first, there is unfinished business with Vail.
“They will be coming hard for revenge. It will be a good battle on Saturday,” Mitchell said. “We’ve had a few guys go back to college over the last couple of weeks, so we are down a few numbers. It will be a tough battle for us to go against Vail, who are going to be strong again. But we are really looking forward to it. It’s always a great matchup.”
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