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Vail rugby heads to Aspen

Talk about the time Beef stole Aspen’s scrum machine or wakeup calls to Aspen’s hotel and the laughs and smiles follow. Bring up the years 1978, 1985, 1991, 1995 and 1999 and tales of victory become more heroic with each telling.

It’s always special when the Vail and Aspen Rugby Football Clubs get together on the pitch and Saturday in Aspen should be no exception with a 1 p.m. kickoff set at Wagonner Park.

The Gentlemen of Aspen do have a decided edge in this series, but Vail has had its moments. Most recently, in 1999, Vail recorded its first win at Aspen – a 26-23 shocker – when Brett Scriven scored a try in the final minute of the game.

The rivalry had some very humble beginnings in the early 70s. Vail Rugby started operation in 1971 with founder Charlie Penwill. When Bob Seliger came over from Aspen, the rivalry was born. With Old Boys like Bill “Brownie” Brown and Pat “Farmer” McDonald, Vail put up a fight against the Gentlemen, but it was clear who was the better team on the pitch.

“The first three or four years were always bruising encounters with them, Aspen and the (Denver) Barbos,” Brown said. “They had a very strong program at that time and we were just beginning. We only had a half a dozen people with experience. Those games, we got the snot knocked out of us. But we partied them off the field. We were the best party team.”

And by the late 70s, Vail was the best team when it came to kickoff. In 1978, Brown, an Eagle, brought out a few friends he had played with in California – two All-Blacks and another fellow Eagle. Thanks to this recruiting coup – a tradition employed by both sides in this rivalry -Vail won three fixtures from Aspen, including a win at the Ski Town Tournament.

“The next year they went out and started recruiting heavily and they haven’t stopped,” Brown said. “Everybody likes to beat Aspen, but they’ve won (the national title) six years in a row. They’re tough to beat. They train year-round. You’ve got to give them credit for going the way they have.”

But in a rivalry like this, you do what you have to do. And Scott Holstad, better known as Beef, did just that in 1984. As the legend goes, the club needed a scrum machine, so Beef and his co-conspirators swiped Aspen’s scrum machine.

By the time, Vail and Aspen met in 1985, it was apparent that the Blue and White’s newest acquisition had paid off.

“We had it over a year and we played them later that season and completely destroyed them,” Old Boy Piet Pieters said.

Aspen finally got wind of the theft and protested to the Eastern Rockies Rugby Football Union. Faced with the cancellation of the rest of the season’s games, Vail returned the machine – in style. Depending on who’s telling the story, Beef either deposited the machine at the top of Independence Pass or smack-dab in front of the Hotel Jerome in downtown Aspen.

Then, there were also times the hijinks backfired.

“We also used Beef and (Mark) Lagesse whenever they came over here for wakeup calls,” Pieters said. “They’d find out where Aspen was staying and give the boys a wakeup call at 3 or 4 in the morning. That usually worked out against us because Aspen would come out firing. It wasn’t too good of an idea.”

Vail knocked off Aspen in the Ski Club title game in 1991 and 1995. The win in 1991 came by 25 points, the largest margin of victory for Vail in the history of the rivalry. In 1999, Vail made a concerted effort in recruiting and it paid off on June 19, 1999, when a Paul DeBeyer-led side, pulled the upset.

“That was probably the best moment in my rugby career,” recalled current club president Scott Marino, who was on the pitch that day.

Drawing back on that game, Marino believes that preparation and mental toughness are the keys on Saturday.

“One of the things that was said before this week was that this week we can’t think about rugby on just Tuesday and Thursday,” he said. “We have to think about it all seven days to get mentally ready for it.

“The No. 1 thing is that we have to let the referee do his thing. They’re going to throw cheapshots and they’re going to punch us the whole game to get under our skin. We can’t punch back.”


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