Now that’s more like it
ASPEN The sight of Mark Williams back in a red and black uniform underscored the importance of the Gentleman of Aspen’s Mountain League home opener Saturday afternoon.Three weeks after losing at downvalley rival Glenwood Springs for the first time in 14 years, Aspen found itself on its home pitch at Wagner Park with an opportunity to exact some revenge on its downvalley opponent and possibly turn around its season.Pride was on the line, and who better to provide some much-needed experience than Williams, the former Gents player and coach who starred for Aspen’s rugby club during its run of seven national titles between 1997 and 2002?Williams’ deft kicking and on-field leadership proved critical in a 39-25 win that wasn’t as close as the final score indicated. The veteran booted two penalty kicks in a sloppy first half to match two from PKs from Defiance. He then kept the Gents’ young charges focused in the second half as two late Glenwood Springs tries narrowed Aspen’s 26-point lead to 14.”He’s retired about 10 times, but it was good to have him back out there today,” joked current Gents coach Fred Waititi. “To be honest, it was just good to be able to field a good team with good numbers.”
“We knew that nothing was going to stop [Aspen] from taking it today, if at all possible,” Defiance coach Graham Askew added. “They brought out all the big guns, as you see with Mark Williams out there. We knew that they wanted it. My guess would be that they probably don’t care whether they lose every other game this season. They’ll take their first loss ever to Glenwood, but they’re not going to take two in a season.”This Aspen team is noticeably different than those of summers past. Aspen’s first loss to Defiance came last month, a week after its first loss to Steamboat Springs since 1978. That put it in an unfamiliar 1-2 hole to start its Mountain League schedule.The Gents struggled to attract players early in the season – a departure from years past, when talented ruggers from all corners of the globe came to Aspen to play for its storied club. After the earlier loss to Glenwood Springs, Aspen regrouped in recent weeks by attracting a number of local players, as well as bringing in some veterans like Williams. Waititi also recruited Jesse Pekkala, a Telluride resident and former starter with New York’s Old Blue of the Super League, to suit up Saturday.While Aspen’s recruiting has dropped off, other Mountain League foes, including Glenwood Springs, have bolstered their sides by attracting talented internationals. Welsh-born fly-half Morgan Harris, Kenyan national-teamers Teddy Omondi and Caesar Ondula, and New Zealander James Robertson provided all Glenwood Springs’ offense Saturday, with Omondi, Ondula and Harris punched in tries, and Harris booting two penalty kicks and two conversions.
The match was certainly more competitive than the pair between the teams last summer, which Aspen dominated by a combined score of 220-5.Following a late try from Roger Gassett at the end of the first half, Aspen entered the break clinging to an 11-6 lead. Early in the second, Aspen’s momentum disappeared in a blink when Ondula intercepted an errant Aspen pass deep in Glenwood Springs’ zone and returned it the length of the pitch for a try. Harris added the conversion.Down 13-11, the Gents refused to buckle. Pekkala plowed ahead for a try a few minutes later, and Williams was true on the conversion to give Aspen an 18-13 lead.The Gents then went on to score 21 more unanswered points to take a 39-13 lead before Glenwood Springs rallied with its two late tries. One of the Gents’ tries came from Alan Hodgson, another from Waititi on a run that began when the shifty back slipped past two defenders with a fake pass to break into the open field.”I think that there was just a little bit of sloppiness out there in the first half, and holes that were created out of natural efforts that weren’t necessarily followed up,” Pekkala said. “As you start playing the game, it just starts to jell and come together more. The support got much better as the game went on.”
Askew was proud of his team’s effort, but admitted that two many mistakes blew open the match for Aspen.”We missed a few tackles, and those guys are experienced rugby players,” Askew said. “They know how to run straight lines. They know how to run hard and fast, and we gave them a few cheap tries, and after that you’re always going to be going up that hill.” Aspen next hosts Grand Junction on Saturday, the same day Glenwood Springs plays host to Steamboat Springs.Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org
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Puckett was a five-time Olympian and World Cup skier