OCEAN CITY - Surfing has to be the only sport in the world that has games called off on account of calm.
OK, so the games are called contests, or championships - as in the National Scholastic Surfing Association Northeast Conference's annual championship, set to start Sunday morning at the 3rd Street beach in Ocean City.
But you need surf to have a surfing championship, and waves don't always obey a schedule. So competitions in the sport have to schedule backup dates in case the waves don't show up.
And usually, "It's the good-weather days that are our enemies," says John King, a Middle Township High School teacher and the surfing coach there since the club started six years ago. The sport is so dependent on conditions, he says, "You sort of have to schedule 15 contests (in a season) if you want to get five in."
Other local high schools scheduled to surf Sunday include the home team, Ocean City, plus Atlantic City, Holy Spirit, St. Augustine and Southern Regional, says Larry Schmidt, who's in his second year as director of the NSSA Northeast. And even though Schmidt remembers low surf forcing him to postpone last year's championship - the first one he ran - he had decided by Thursday that Sunday is definitely a go.
He has to make that call early because the teams, which add up to 175 or so surfers, plus parents and other spectators, come from as far away as Long Beach, N.Y., on Long Island. (That's why this annual competition isn't just a New Jersey state championship anymore.)
"Fortunately, it looks like we're going to have some surf," said Schmidt, 42, of Manasquan, a veteran surfer who runs a photography business in his day job.
And Ocean City High School surfing coach Mark Miedama's athletes had at least some surf to work out on this week. He counted 28 surfers in the water at Thursday's practice - one of three three practices he schedules each week for his club, which will be shooting for its 18th straight state or Northeast Conference championship Sunday.
As the football team goes through its drills on its home field, just a long block away, the surf team practices on its home beach, 5th Street, in a format the coach compares to a scrimmage. He runs mock heats just as they'll be done this weekend, complete with official timing - officially (and efficiently) communicated to the athletes out in the ocean with an air horn - judges and score sheets.
Each heat lasts 15 minutes and the surfers are judged on their two best waves. The coach checks his watch, blasts the air horn and sticks a yellow warning flag up in the hard sand when just five minutes are left in the heat.
"Anybody who doesn't like their waves, or their wave counts, should start to scramble," Miedama says, explaining a bit of competitive surfing strategy.
Most of the kids on the team say they'd be out surfing anyway, even without a coach expecting them to show up for practice - and even if the waves aren't perfect every practice day.
Annie Best, a sophomore, is in her first year on the team and just her second year of living full-time in Ocean City after her family moved down from Camden County. But she's been surfing since she was 8, and she surfs all winter when the waves are good enough.
She still has friends back in her old home, and some are surprised by her choice of sports - actually, that she even has this choice of sports as a high-school athlete.
"They say, 'Oh, you're on the surfing team?'" she repeats, smiling. "So I tell them, 'Well, my school's on the beach. What did you expect?' But it's more adults who are shocked than kids."
Herb Godfrey is an Ocean City native who remembers when the surfing team wasn't available in his old high school - until right before his senior year, 1983-84. But when a club started, he joined in its first year. Now he's a funeral director by profession and a surf parent when possible, heading to the beach to watch his son, Herbie, compete for his third year.
Up on the Boardwalk, Michelle Sharp is hardly a hometown girl - she grew up in Hawaii, which recently became the only state in the country to officially sanction surfing as a varsity high-school sport. (In New Jersey, school surfers are members of clubs, not varsity teams; that's why the NSSA, not the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Assoctiation, has to run the championship.)
But Sharp isn't sure if the school her son, Bruce, would have gone to in Hawaii actually has a surfing team - they moved to Ocean City a bit before he started high school.
"This is the best sport ever for a parent," the surf mom says. "It's outdoors, you can hang out on the beach. It's relatively free, because they already have surfboards. And there aren't a bunch of concession stands around."
But Ocean City's surf club does have its share of official school-team-type stuff. Miedama, a math teacher at the city's Intermediate School in real life, was reminding his kids of the annual team dinner on Friday night. Plus the coach is thrilled with the new Ocean City Surfing trailer, the one several local sponsors got together to buy and customize this year to help out the team.
Then there's that regular practice schedule, three days a week all season. And although an overly calm ocean can cancel contests, Miedama won't call off a practice for good or bad weather, unless there's lightning around. Unlike some other sports, you can't move a surfing practice inside - and rain doesn't matter much anyway in a sport where the players are already soaked before the game even starts.
But with his decades of experience, this coach does remember one year when the NSSA decided the championship had to be postponed for an unusual reason - too much surf.
"There was a storm warning and a high-surf advisory. They said we can't put the kids in the water," the veteran of the school-surf wars says, with a smile. "So you know what the kids did: They just went and surfed at a different beach."
Contact Martin DeAngelis:
The National Scholastic Surfing Association Northeast Conference championships start 8 a.m. Sunday and are expected to run until at least 5 p.m. off the 3rd Street beach in Ocean City. Free.