Third place wasn't good enough last year for Ventnor's Cassidy McClain.

Competing again in the Easterns Surfing Championships in Nags Head, N.C., McClain took first place in the Junior Women's Division last weekend - beating 16 other women surfers ages 15 to 17.

The championships, held Sept. 15-21, were presented by the Eastern Surfing Association, which bills itself as the world's largest amateur surfing organization, stretching from Florida to Maine and the Great Lakes.

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"Going down (to North Carolina) and winning the Easterns this year was a huge accomplishment," McClain said. "I went to California, Costa Rica, and Nicaragua for two months this winter and it really helped. I worked with my coach (Alex Espeir from London), who really improved my surfing so I was totally ready to win Easterns."

McClain, who turned 18 in June, said that she traveled a lot more in the past year and a half, surfing in different competitions and meeting up with Espeir when she could to prepare herself for this tournament.

Joe Grottola, a Cape May native and the Southern New Jersey District Director for ESA, was down in North Carolina for the competition and recognized the enthusiasm McClain has for surfing.

"She's an amazing young talent," Grottola said. "She's always in the water. She's running up and down the coast chasing waves all over the place.

"She's really taking her surfing to a level above and beyond those of the average South Jersey surfer."

Last year, the conditions for the event were "perfect" with chest-high waves, McClain said. This year, the waters were a bit choppier and conditions were inconsistent, which made for a more challenging, but impressive victory.

With all of that in mind, McClain knew she had to have the right mindset going into her heats.

"Going down there was so crazy," McClain said. "The conditions where the contest was would change every 15 minutes. At one point (the waves) break at one spot, but at the end of the heat it would break somewhere else."

"Like in my semifinal, I picked the spot where I wanted to surf and catch the waves because in the first heat it was breaking so good and then I paddled out and this huge rip current formed right where I was sitting. And as soon as my heat ended the rip current went away."

The championship included an opening round of four 20-minute heats with four surfers per heat. The top two surfers from each heat advanced to the semifinals where the top two surfers in those two 20-minute heats competed in the finals.

McClain won her first heat pretty easily, said Pat Emery, the ESA All-Star Coach and Long Beach Island native who has worked with McClain the past year. In her second heat, she stumbled a bit during the round against the tougher competition but was able to place second and move onto the finals.

"She came down to the final and she really put it together," Emery said. "I would say about five minutes into the heat she got a really good wave and she surfed it really well. It was probably the best I've seen her surf in a long time.

"That kind of boosted her confidence, and then a couple minutes later she got another good wave and the rest of the finals she was surfing so well and there was no doubt at that point, and I realized she was going to take the championship. I knew she was going to win."

Earlier this year, McClain became the first female competitor to win an Open Division at an ESA regional event in Sea Isle City.

McClain recently graduated from Atlantic City High School. She is taking online courses at Atlantic Cape Community College for now, and is looking to see what the next year brings before she decides what she wants to do with surfing.

"This year, I plan to travel (and compete in a handful of contests), maybe go to Nicaragua or Costa Rica or Puerto Rico for a few weeks this winter to surf there and hone in on my skills," McClain said. "This is my year to play around and see what I want to do with my surfing career."

If surfing doesn't become the answer for McClain, she said teaching is what she's most interested in. She already serves as a teacher in a way already, working with Stacy's Surf Camp in Margate, teaching young kids how to surf.

"The kids are super fun to work with," McClain said. "They get so pumped, like when you push a kid into the wave and they stand and are smiling and having a good time. It's so cool. It's the greatest feeling ever."

That enthusiasm hasn't gone unrecognized by others.

"She's really humble about it but super enthusiastic about surfing," Grottola said. "She's always there to help out, help us set up our contests (with the ESA) and is just a great person all around."

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