Gentlemen of Aspen 7’s eye another strong showing in K.C. |

Gentlemen of Aspen 7’s eye another strong showing in K.C.

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

COMMERCE CITY, Colo. – The tries came too late.

“Like turn off the lights late,” Gentlemen of Aspen 7’s coach Andy Katoa joked Wednesday.

Katoa’s squad scored twice in the waning minutes of July 11’s rugby tournament final against the rival Denver Barbarians, but it was not enough to overcome a large early deficit. They wound up losing by more than 20 points – Katoa said he did his best to forget the final score.

The result was a difficult conclusion to what had been a promising weekend at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City. A weekend that included a win over the 2007 national champion, a perfect record in pool play and a thrilling come-from-behind semifinal win.

Still, the reigning-champion Gents, who square off this weekend in a tournament in Kansas City – after which the 16-team field for Aug. 14-17’s nationals in San Francisco will be set – are well positioned to have the chance to defend their crown. After two losses to the Barbos in two tournaments this summer, they are firmly in second place in the West Region. The top two teams in each of the country’s eight regions will play in California.

“Trying to be prepared physically and mentally has been tough, but I think that makes this all worthwhile,” Katoa said. “With the 7’s season being so short, if you peak too soon, you’re out of the loop toward the end. … I hope we peak at nationals.”

Aspen appears to be on its way. It opened July 11 with a convincing win over the Chicago Lions, the 2007 national title winners. The Gents overcame early struggles to down the Glendale Raptors in the second game before outlasting the Barbos’ B squad to advance to the semifinals.

“Even that game was tough for us,” Katoa said. “I don’t if we were complacent knowing it was Denver’s B side, but we ended up having to score some late tries. … we put ourselves in some really tough predicaments.

“We were very inconsistent with our play [all day]. That’s the stuff we’re trying to iron out.”

Those inconsistencies cropped up in the semifinals against a talent-laden Dallas squad that exposed Aspen’s porous defense and built an early lead. With three minutes left, the Gents looked to standout Mike Palefau to provide a spark.

Much like he did all day, the U.S. team member delivered. He shook free and barreled down the pitch, outrunning defenders on a nearly 60-meter run past the try line. A teammate added another try down the stretch to help the Gents earn a spot in the finals.

“He’s a spectacular player and brings a lot to the table,” Katoa said. “With offense, we’re trying to get away from always relying on Mike. … But the last couple games, when he had the ball in his hands, it’s usually a pretty good result.”

Not even Palefau could do much to buoy Aspen in the final. The Gents’ Merritt Johnson’s opening kickoff sailed wildly off his foot and got caught up in the wind. Everybody jumped to corral the ball, but missed. Denver obtained possession and bolted down the pitch to score after just 10 seconds.

It got no better from there for the Gents.

“The last couple of times they got us, and last year we had their number in the finals of each tournament,” Katoa said. “We have to start concentrating on defense a little more. … If defense goes well, everything else will be OK.”

Katoa said he’d relish a rematch with the Barbarians should the two advance to the finals again this weekend. His main concern, though, is his squad’s health. Five starters are currently battling injuries.

“I’ve got to wait and see my injury report from Aspen Sports Medicine,” Katoa joked. “Hopefully, we step on the field Saturday and have some good results … but I’m looking down the road. We just need to come out healthy.”

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