SEASIDE HEIGHTS - No one can surf Casino Pier like Sam Hammer.
Hammer, 31, of Lavellette, came through several incredibly deep barrels in the final rounds of the Smith Optics Garden State Grudge Match in Seaside Heights on Thursday to take first place in overhead southeast swell.
But while Hammer has raised the belt four times in the event's nine-year history, this was the first final for 18-year-old Mike Ciaramella of Stone Harbor. The Middle Township High School senior surfed through five man-on-man heats to face Hammer.
As the Grudge Match is not a sanctioned event or part of any larger tour, Ciaramella will not gain any ranking points or qualify for any bigger events. He simply proved that he is among the best surfers in the state.
"Mikey was clearly a standout today," said head judge Kevin Morris, of South Seaville in Dennis Township. "He just needs to fill out a little bit. That will happen with age, and he'll develop more power."
The surf was challenging. The swell from Wednesday's departing low-pressure system was 4-6 feet, but the south/southwest winds were somewhat sideshore and relentless, creating some closeouts. There was also a tough southerly current, ripping surfers down the beach.
Some local favorites went down early. Returning champ Zach Humprheys, 22, of Margate, fell in the first round. Perennial contender Jamie Moran, 27, of Ocean City, lost to Mike Gleason, 25, of Long Branch.
Somers Point's Dean Randazzo, 42, who won this event in 2002 and 2007, was not present as he was representing Team USA at the International Surfing Association World Masters Championships in El Salvador. Randazzo advanced to the Grand Masters semifinal Thursday.
Ciaramella, meanwhile, started his campaign by beating Randy Townsend, 32, of Surf City, a tough second-round draw. He also had his work cut out for him in the semifinal against Keith Noonan, 40, of Long Branch, who was in top form all day.
In the semifinal, Ciaramella caught an overhead wave and did a huge vertical turn on the first section, before riding it to the beach with five more solid turns. Noonan never caught up and Ciaramella won 15-9.5, going into the final against Hammer.
Hammer, who earned a slot in the Quiksilver Pro New York trials in September, has a strong knowledge of the pier in addition to tremendous surf skills. After handling Pat Schmidt, 16, of Manasquan, he faced off against Mike Gleason in the semifinal. This was a rematch of the 2006 final. Both are regularfoots and celebrated East Coast barrel riders.
Hammer set himself deep outside the pier, made a steep drop and disappeared behind a curtain of foam and whitewater. Five seconds later, he emerged from the barrel, collecting a perfect 10 from every judge. Gleason performed some powerful carves and pulled into barrels of his own but wasn't able to come out.
Surfing against Hammer in a final is intimidating to anyone, much less a high school kid who just qualified for this event last year.
"I honestly didn't have much of a plan going into that final," Ciaramella said. "If you give Hammer 30 minutes, he's going to put up 18 points. I had to just let him get his waves and work with what's left."
Ciaramella didn't concede the title to Hammer. He came hard off the bottom of his first wave for an open-face turn and a 5.5 and later in the heat, connected several maneuvers, including a roundhouse cutback for a 7.0.
What Ciaramella couldn't do was keep Hammer off the best wave of the heat, as Hammer air-dropped into another overhead peak, pulled into the barrel, emerged again and exacted two more reentries for a 9.9.
"That barrel (in the semis) was the best I've ever had on the north side of Casino Pier," Hammer said. "It was a suck-up drop, one that you're just happy to get to the bottom. I pushed down low into a whole other section. It was even bigger and hollow. I just stayed low and came out."
Ciaramella wasn't disappointed with his finish. He will graduate this spring and already has applied to several West Coast colleges, including the University of California Santa Barbara.
Even if he ends up out there, though, Ciaramella said he might have to fly back next October to try to win the belt.