SEASIDE HEIGHTS - After three years, the Smith Optics Garden State Grudge Match belt is back in southern New Jersey, thanks to 21-year-old Zach Humphreys of Margate.
On Thursday, he beat defending Grudge Match champ Sam Hammer, of Lavallette, at Casino Pier in Seaside Heights by a score of 14.5 points to 10.5.
This was Humphreys' first victory at the event, which features the best surfers in New Jersey. He is the first local surfer to take the title since Dean Randazzo in 2007.
"It just felt good to surf," Humphreys said. "I haven't had any waves in three weeks."
Simply holding the Grudge Match this year was a challenge for organizer Rob Cloupe.
The event is held "on call," meaning that Cloupe waited for the best day of surf in October. Competitors must be ready to drop everything and get to Seaside Heights the morning of the contest.
But erratic swells early in the waiting period and then a three-week flat spell pushed the event late in the month.
A poorly defined low-pressure system drummed up a marginal swell for Thursday morning. At daybreak, it was 2-foot with south winds. But the ocean came together for the start of the event.
By afternoon, the waves were shoulder high, with perfect offshore winds. It wasn't the heavy barrels of years past, but it was still quality conditions.
By Grudge Match format, no one is seeded coming into the event. The matchups are picked at random.
That meant that last year's finalist, Andrew Gesler, of Ocean City, and two-time champ Randazzo, of Somers Point, took early exits at the hands of Long Branch's Mike Gleason and three-time champ Hammer, respectively.
Humphreys looked strong early on. In the quarterfinals, he beat 2003 Grudge Match champ Matt Keenan, 36, of Ocean City. He then downed Michael Ciaramella of Stone Harbor in the semis, 11.3 to 10.1.
Ciaramella put his own name on the map in Seaside Heights yesterday in his first-ever Grudge Match. The Middle Township High School junior surfed with dead-on consistency throughout the day, but Humphreys was too much to handle.
Hammer bested 31-year-old Randy Townsend, of Surf City, in the quarters and then Gleason in the semis, 13.3 to 11.8, in a clash of forehand power. In 2009, Hammer beat Humphreys in the semifinal, and they met again in the final on Thursday.
Humphreys put some low scores on the board to start while Hammer exacted two critical backside turns for a score of 6.2 of a possible 10. But Humphreys answered by catching a bigger left and getting one solid turn, before a massive backside gouge, followed by two more impressive hits for an 8. It was the best turn of the contest.
Humphreys then found a similar wave to his first, getting a backup score of a 6.5. Hammer eventually found a wave where he executed a sweeping frontside turn to a floater and cutback for a 4.5.
But it wasn't enough to overcome Humphreys' lead.
"I'm really pumped for him," Hammer said of Humphreys. "He surfed really well right from the first heat."
As the seconds ticked away, Humphreys' fellow southern New Jersey surfers met him at the shoreline. He donned the belt and commenced celebrating on the beach. Randazzo, who grew up surfing in Margate, was happy to see the belt return to his home turf.
"A Margate boy bringing it home," Randazzo said. "I like to see (the title) come back to Absecon Island."
Humphreys said that he just wanted to advantage of gettting to the Grudge Match final.
"I wanted to keep busy out there. I surfed back-to-back heats, so I had to keep myself going. I didn't come all this way to take second place," Humphreys said.
Humphreys, now a pro, has surfed this event since he was 16. He plans to use the $3,500 prize money to spend much of the winter traveling and competing around the world. He heads to Hawaii in December and hopes to gain entry into the Association of Surfing Professionals-rated Volcom Pipeline Pro in February.
"Sam is one of the few surfers I really look up to," he said on the beach. "He's been a role model, but he's got me every time we faced each other."