Summit Rugby continues to dream big as U.S. Olympic team comes to town

Team USA's U-18 team is seen at a tournament this past summer, including Summit High players PK Vincze (top left) and Nicole Kimball (bottom row, third from left).
Courtesy Courtlandt Pennell

BRECKENRIDGE — It’s one thing to dream. It’s another to put in the work and time necessary to live the dream.

Summit Rugby’s 22-plus-year journey from genesis to glory speaks to that reality of athletics — and life — as well as any other sports story in the county. They have 11 consecutive state championships to prove it.

On Sunday, the Summit Rugby program will have a day of living the dream. That’s because the U.S. Women’s National Rugby Team will host a clinic with Tigers high school players at the Breckenridge Recreation Center’s turf field from 2-4 p.m.

Speaking Friday, Team USA head coach Chris Brown said this weekend’s convergence of the national team and Summit High in Breckenridge is unprecedented. Though it’s never happened before, Brown said it speaks to Summit county’s one-of-a-kind rugby family.

“I know they are really keen and a very supportive rugby community,” Brown said. “They love this game, it’s a community game, and the values of rugby — inclusiveness, creating sisterhood and giving children and people an opportunity.”

The country’s highest-level team going out of their way to come connect with a high school sports program — just how does that happen? How does a high school team attract Olympians to essentially come over and play with them?

There is an element of preparation and planning to it, sure. But it all comes back to Summit head coach Karl Barth. The program’s founder, Barth is not only one of the greatest high school rugby coaches in the country’s history. He also has extensive experience coaching U.S. boys and girls junior national teams for many years.

Per Barth’s usual style, he deflected the credit to his Summit athletes, several of whom have suited up for the Stars & Stripes over the years including one current member of the Team USA Senior National Team pool, Harvard sophomore Cassidy Bargell.

“We’ve had a bunch of kids, not unlike today, committed to learning,” Barth said. “They’ve always been a fun group.”

Barth, in many ways, is the direct connection between Team USA and Summit. Of the elite women competing to represent the U.S. at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Barth said he’s coached about half of them.

Along with Barth, elements surrounding the Summit Rugby club contributed to making this dream weekend a reality. Club president Courtlandt Pennell said this weekend also came to be thanks to the club’ approach of not being hesitant to ask about potential possibilities.

Summit High School head coach Karl Barth (far right) poses for a photo with Summit Tigers alums (left to right) Becca Jane Rosko, Cassidy Bargell and Marin Pennell at the NCAA National Championship game between Harvard and Dartmouth last November.
Courtesy Courtlandt Pennell

That started two years ago at a CanAm Rugby Tournament in New York’s Adirondack State Park. At the event, 2019 Summit High rugby grad CeCe Pennell and current seniors PK Vincze and Nicole Kimball represented the U.S.’s U-18 national team. While spectating, Courtlandt Pennell, CeCe’s father, told Team USA general manager Emily Bydwell if the national team ever wanted to come to Summit County, the Tigers would welcome them.

This autumn proved the perfect opportunity for both Summit and Team USA. Next weekend, the U.S. Women’s 7’s team will begin their preparation for next summer’s Tokyo 2020 Olympics with the first stop on the HSBC Women’s 7s Series at Glendale’s Infinity Park, which hosts the USA Women’s 7s Tournament Oct. 5-6.

In advance of the tournament, Bydwell remembered Pennell’s offer. When she mentioned it to Brown, they felt it could serve as an ideal team-building opportunity for the American players as they began to dial-in their roster for Tokyo 2020.

Summit High Tiger rugby alums (left to right) Lilly Weldon, Meg Rose, Becca Jane Rosko and Marin Pennell are seen at the 2017 NCAA National Championship between Quinnipiac and Dartmouth.
Courtesy Courtlandt Pennell

“‘Is that invitation still open to come to Breck?,'” Pennell recalled of a phone conversation with Bydwell two months ago. “And my short answer is always, ‘100%, absolutely. We’ll make it work.’”

From there, Summit Rugby showcased the organization and community it has built ever since Summit High students Mike David and Alison Aichinger came to Barth in 1997 and asked him to help start up a rugby program. Pennell and Summit Rugby then went to community sponsors and partners, asking if there’s any way they could help to host Team USA over the weekend.

“‘Hey, we’ve got the Olympic team coming,'” Pennell said of his outreach, ‘can you guys,’ And the answer was always, ‘yep! What do you need?’”

Summit High alum Cassidy Bargell’s Team USA portrait from when she captained the U.S. U-18 team in France in the summer of 2016.
Courtesy Courtlandt Pennell

Peak One Express will transport Team USA to and from the Front Range. Beaver Run Resort is set to host the team for two nights. Breckenridge restaurants Briar Rose and Giampietro Pasta & Pizzeria signed on to host a reception Saturday night. The town of Breckenridge provided field time and rec passes. Kat Pummill will lead the team through a yoga class. Lolo Juice and Soupz On donated breakfast and lunch. And Mi Casa will feed the aspiring Olympians Saturday night.

“This really sort of hammers home that we are a rugby community,” Pennell said.

Though Team USA won’t be doing any high-altitude training in Summit before heading down to Glendale on Monday to get ready for the tournament, Pennell, Barth and Brown said there is an element of acclimatizing to the team’s stay in Summit. But, more importantly, Team USA will grow closer ahead of the Olympics while also paying it forward to Summit’s youth.

If you go

What: U.S. Olympic Women’s Rugby Team Clinic
Where: Breckenridge Recreation Center turf field
When: Sunday, 2-4 p.m.
Why: To watch Team USA and for the chance for photos and autographs

“Just think about if you are a freshman and you are starting to play rugby,” Pennell said. “How you are literally hanging out with women who will be in the Olympics.”

Sunday’s clinic is for Summit High players, but Pennell and Barth said community members are more than welcome to stop by to watch and for photos and autographs. As for the Tiger players, Barth and Pennell said weekends like this one serve as a reinforcement for their grandest rugby dreams. And after rugby 7s debuted for the first time at the 2016 Rio Summer Olympics, those wide-eyed dreams include athletics’ grandest stage.

From current players like Vincze and Kimball to recent grads like Bargell, Natalie Gray and Marin and CeCe Pennell, Summit Tigers have extensive recent experience suiting up for the red, white and blue. Whether it’s one of them or an excited youngster in the crowd Sunday, Barth and Courtlandt Pennell know one day it’s likely a Tiger will live the dream of representing the U.S. at the Olympics.

“How great would that be?” said Pennell.

Summit High rugby alum CeCe Pennell plays for Team USA’s U-18 team last year.
Courtesy Courtlandt Pennell

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