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Gentlemen of Aspen look to repeat in 7’s tourney

Jon Maletz
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

ASPEN – Andy Katoa was part of a Gentlemen of Aspen side that won a total of seven national titles in 15’s from 1997 to 2002. He also suited up during the lean years that followed, when the Gents struggled to field a team – and struggled to remain relevant.

Katoa has experienced the highs and the lows.

He also has helped orchestrate a resurgence.

He and fellow coach Fred Waititi were roaming the sidelines in San Francisco last August when Aspen returned to prominence, securing the program’s first National 7’s crown.

In late May, the Gents stood tall again, toppling the field in the Division I playoffs to pick up a second national title in nine months.

“Aspen has had a great tradition, and [the turnaround] has been great,” Katoa said Thursday. “There’s been a lot of trials and tribulations and a lot of sacrifices. The commitment is there. … It’s been great to see things start to come full circle.”

Aspen’s pursuit of back-to-back 7’s championships begins Saturday on the sweltering pitches of Dallas. The Gents will take part in pool play with 24 teams from their territory, which includes Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Kansas and Nebraska, Katoa said. While all teams will advance to July 11’s elimination round in Denver, those that finish in the top three earn points and an all-important seeding advantage.

Two teams from each of the country’s eight territories will advance to August’s finals in San Francisco.

The Gents are hoping to write another chapter in their storied history. It will be hard to top last year’s dramatic effort.

After cruising to quarterfinal and semifinal wins by a combined total of 59-0, Aspen faced adversity in the 7’s final. It trailed, 17-5, late in the second half against Belmont Shore (Calif.). After trading tries and conversions, the Gents trailed by five with just two minutes to go. Belmont won a lineout and was driving when two Aspen players closed in near midfield.

They stripped the ball, and Jesse Pekkala came up with it. He sprinted down the pitch to score the game-tying try, then Teddy Omondi converted the conversion as time expired to seal the 27-25 win.

Katoa admitted he never saw Pekkala’s try. He thought Omondi was offside, and turned his head in disgust.

“When I found out we won, I was so proud of the guys – I knew how hard they worked,” Katoa said. “I knew our goal was to try and get Aspen back up to the national spotlight. … We liked to let people know we’re back, that all those years weren’t just a fluke.

“Our kids are not the most talented kids, but they are the hardest workers I’ve ever known. I’d take any one of them up against anybody in the country.”

Many players from last year’s squad will return for the repeat bid, including Mike Palafau, a national team member and MVP of last year’s tournament. In addition, a few new faces will enter mix.

The plan for this weekend is to give every player on the roster some time on the pitch, Katoa said. That strategy could prove to be a necessity; Aspen is slated to play six games on Saturday, when temperatures are expected to exceed 100 degrees in Dallas. The National Weather Service has issued a heat advisory.

“We’re going to play in the ‘Oven Bowl,'” Katoa joked. “The only equalizer for high-altitude training is the heat – it zaps [the energy] out of you. If it was nice and cool, we could run all day long. … We’ll find out this weekend if we need to train harder or stay where we’re at.

“Then again, you can never train hard enough.”

A year after surprising the field – and themselves – the Gents will be hard-pressed to sneak up on anyone this time around. Katoa is hoping that work ethic, one that has keyed the program’s revival, will fuel another long run this summer.

“To come and try to get back to that level is great for these guys,” Katoa said. “We talked about this, and now that it has finally happened in 7’s and 15’s, it’s about trying to have another seven-year run like we had in the past. That’s the goal anyway.

“The pressure is on, brother, and it starts this weekend.”

jmaletz@aspentimes.com


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