Gents, Barbos on collision course
The Aspen Times
After the Gentleman of Aspen pulled out a tight victory over the Denver Barbarians in pool play Saturday afternoon at Ruggerfest, Merritt Johnson had a feeling the two teams would cross paths again.
After Aspen’s resounding 38-17 win over the Denver Highlanders in the second open-division semifinal later Saturday afternoon at Wagner Park ” the Gents’ third win in as many matches on the day ” Johnson’s hunch came to fruition.
The Barbos cruised in the earlier semifinal, 40-18, over the Old Mission Beach Athletic Club. Now, Aspen and Denver, the two teams who have combined to win the last 12 Ruggerfest open titles, will clash once more today at 3:10 p.m.
“It’s going to be big. They’re going in looking for some revenge, and we’re both going for the same thing,” said Spencer Scott, whose penalty kick in the waning minutes against the Barbos sealed Aspen’s 10-7 win. “It’s going to be hard-core and intense.”
Similar words could describe Saturday’s tussle. Spectators packing the pitch watched as the two teams were locked in a 50-minute defensive struggle. The Barbarians took the early 7-0 lead, but Aspen’s Alec Parker set up the equalizing try just before the half when he took a pass out wide and alertly flipped the ball to a teammate as the defense closed.
The Barbos missed a drop kick, then a penalty kick from 20 yards out during the first four minutes of the second half. Scott made them pay when, with nine minutes to play, he converted from a sharp angle on the right side. The ball sailed just inside the left post.
After another missed penalty kick, the Barbos pushed the ball deep into Aspen’s end in the waning minutes, but their desperate attempt to push the pile past the try line was unsuccessful.
For a second straight game, the Gents overcame an early deficit. They trailed Albuquerque at the half in their opener.
“[Albuquerque] came with a hell of a team, and we had to work hard to get through that,” Aspen coach Fred Waititi said. “It was tougher than expected, but that’s exactly what we needed. … Denver brought the full army, them being a Super League team and us being a little Division I. They scored early, but we gathered ourselves nicely and were able to hang with them.
“To beat them once was great. To beat them twice will take a hell of an effort.”
As the Gents warmed up at Paepcke Park, the Barbos secured their spot in today’s final. Aspen followed suit soon after in convincing fashion.
Less than two minutes in, The Gents’ Zeke Camusio broke free up the right side for nearly 80 yards before passing off to Simon Dogbe for the easy try. After two Highlanders penalty kicks cut the lead to one, Camusio finished on his own up the right side, stretching the advantage to 14-6.
Johnson got into the act late in the first when he alertly kicked the ball over an onrushing group of defenders, then tracked it down mere yards from the try line before passing to Camusio.
“I just wanted to be the first one there,” Johnson said. “After that, if there’s no catch, you hope there’s a good bounce and there was. I thought I was going to score but I got grabbed. I was happy to see Zeke right near me.”
Parker stretched the lead to 28-9 in the final minute of the half with a try in the corner. Kai Beech and Dogbe converted tries during a second half in which the Highlanders could pull no closer than 16.
“We were able to get the ball out clearer, which gave our backs a chance to run,” Johnson said. “Today was good. We built and got better in every game. We can only improve tomorrow.”
Aspen’s celebration was muted. After a marathon day in which all 30 players saw action, the Gents were undoubtedly fatigued.
They also know what lies ahead today, Waititi said.
“Playing the Barbarians over 50 minutes is different than playing them over 80,” the coach added. Saturday’s games featured 25-minute halves, while today’s will be 40. “They’re a class side with class players. They’re not going to fold easily.”
Scott is already anticipating the rematch. He even spent time Saturday pondering the possibility that the championship ” which would be Aspen’s third straight and 11th in 13 years ” will rest on his right leg.
“I’d like to have another one to win it,” said Scott. “I hope I get the chance.”
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