Aspen Gents struggling to attract and keep players |

Aspen Gents struggling to attract and keep players

ASPEN ” It’s been a humbling two weeks for Aspen’s proud rugby club.

Saturday, a week after losing to Steamboat Springs for the first time since 1978, the Gentlemen of Aspen’s summer side experienced the once-unthinkable: losing to Glenwood Springs’ Defiance for the first time in 14 years.

For a club accustomed to pounding its downvalley rival ” including 95-0 and 125-5 routs last summer ” losing 37-20 was demoralizing.

Current Gents coach Fred Waititi wasn’t in a state of panic Monday, but he admitted that the two losses were low points in the 40-year-old club’s recent history, considering Aspen’s record of success. At its apex, Aspen was the most dominant rugby club in the country, winning seven national titles between 1997 and 2002 while playing in the Super League and the top division of USA Rugby, then the combined USA Rugby Super League.

During that stretch, the club recruited some of the most talented players in the world.

In April 2005, however, the Gents surprisingly dropped out of the Super League midseason ” a split that stemmed from a nasty legal spat the Gents had brought against the league in 2004 regarding the eligibility of a foreign-born player.

The Gents subsequently returned to their roots as a “summer” club ” a move that allowed the team to fill out a roster with whomever they pleased.

Last fall and spring, the club also fielded a side for a Division I schedule ” which had competition comparable to the Super League’s but, because matches are organized regionally, offered a much-less-demanding travel schedule.

In the transition, Aspen’s inability to attract the blue-chip players it has in summers past has resulted in a competitive shift in the league ” one that first started taking shape last season when Vail pounded Aspen in the summer finale to win the league title.

“We’re not that bad, it’s just that the playing field has leveled out a bit,” Waititi said. “Right now we’re struggling for players. We’re doing the best we can with what we’ve got. In the past, Aspen has been a place that rugby players have wanted to come for the summer, but the club is no longer the club it used to be. We’ve always had the pick of the bunch, and that’s not the case anymore.”

A lack of affordable housing and a high cost of living has made it increasingly difficult to attract quality domestic and international players, Waititi said. Other teams in the summer Mountain League have also improved their recruiting.

In recent years, Aspen’s club has helped find visiting players jobs and housing, but it’s becoming increasingly difficult to provide such arrangements.

“That’s the best Glenwood side I’ve ever seen,” Waititi said. “They’ve got some really talented players, and they beat us fair and square.”

Aspen isn’t scheduled to play again until July 14, when Defiance travels upvalley for a rematch.

Waititi said the club is still looking for players this summer, “but one of the problems is that Aspen is too darn expensive for the college kids to come here for a summer.”

“The few that we had come here, they’ve struggled to find accommodations for them,” he added. “We can’t say come along, and then not deliver on promises. We’ve got four or five guys sleeping on guys’ floors, as it is.”

Waititi remains optimistic, however, that the club can turn its season around. Aspen’s home Mountain League opener with Vail was scheduled for this Saturday at Wagner Park but is going to be rescheduled for later in the summer at Vail’s request.

Aspen isn’t scheduled to play again until July 14, when Defiance travels upvalley for a rematch.

“It buys us a bit of time,” Waititi said. “I think it’s fair to say we don’t enjoy losing, and it certainly gives us motivation.”

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