Steamboat rugby beats Vail, Aspen in record-breaking year

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— It's hard to appreciate what the Steamboat Springs Rugby Club has accomplished this year if you don't turn the pages back and take a glimpse at the past.

It wasn't always like this.

A 9-0 record.

Cowpie Classic champions for the first time since 1981.

A win against rival Vail and a win against Aspen for the first time since 1978.

But not too long ago, the rugby team in Steamboat was more of the doormat than the class of the league.

From 1996 to 2003, the team won zero games.

"In 1996, the team was almost disbanded," said Mark Hermacinski, who often is credited with holding the team together. "Really, there wasn't that much of a team."

"We picked up hitchhikers," said Bill Wernig, who with Hermacinski helped keep the team together, "and made them play for us."

Hermacinski, who has been playing rugby since 1977, said during the dark years it wouldn't be uncommon for Steamboat to lose to teams like Aspen and Vail by as many as 100 points.

"I remember saying how unfair that was," Hermacinski said. "But I also took it as a lesson. We got to learn from these guys."

If Aspen could do it in a resort town, then why couldn't Steamboat, Hermacinski thought.

Why couldn't Steamboat attract foreign players in the summer? Why couldn't they get the athletes in the town to play?

"I don't know why we kept on playing," Hermacinski said. "I guess I knew that this town had a bunch of rugby players in it."

So, Hermacinski started a Web site. By his accounts, it wasn't a very good one, but at least it was out there.

Then four years ago, a couple of English guys and a young Australian by the name of Michael Hurley came across it.

The English guys came out and practiced with the team.

Hurley, who'd played most of his life in Australia at a high level, took one look at the seven or so guys gathered at the training session and made a vow.

"I made a conscious decision to lift things up," Hurley said. "I recruited heavily. It didn't matter if you'd ever played or not. I invited ever single player or athlete I could."

So that's what Hurley did. He invited anyone out to play. He encouraged former Steamboat Springs football players who'd graduated high school to come out and play.

Hurley, who said he couldn't imagine living without rugby, spent the first two years just recruiting.

"Rugby's my life," he said. "I live it and breath it. Without rugby, it would be like taking women away. It'd be like prison."

With an influx of talent, Steamboat became respectable.

Last year, the team lost to Wyoming in the Cowpie by three points. The team lost to Vail multiple times by less than three points.

But before this year began, Steamboat received some of its best talent. In addition to several Scottish players, Hurley was able to bring in coach Graham Muir, who helped coach the Chicago Griffins to the Rugby Super League semifinals.

Muir brought in a level of respect and coaching knowledge a lot of the players hadn't seen.

"He knows so much rugby it's ridiculous," Wernig said. "I'm learning all over again."

The revitalization of the Steamboat rugby team came full circle at this year's Cowpie Classic.

Steamboat beat Wyoming - who'd won the previous seven Cowpies - 6-0, in the semifinal. Then, the team beat Vail, 15-10, in the final.

Short on props for both games, Wernig was thrust in to play against guys half his age.

"It was a treat," said Wernig, who played every minute of both games. "I was happy to play. It was fun to look over at the sidelines and see all these guys I played with 25 years ago. I was probably their hero."

Now, with the Ski Town Tournament (July 28 and 29 at Whistler Field) and a chance to win the Rocky Mountain Cup, Steamboat's journey from bottom feeder to top team in the state is almost complete.

"We've been the poor cousins for 20 years," Hurley said. "We were the guys you'd beat up. But now, we're the team to beat in Colorado."

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