N.J. prep surf teams suit up for tourney - Sandy willing

Members of the St. Augustine Prep School surf team head for the waves to practice in Margate.
Members of the St. Augustine Prep School surf team head for the waves to practice in Margate. (GREGG KOHL)
Posted: October 27, 2012

MARGATE, N.J. - It was a little after 8 last Saturday morning at the Essex Avenue beach, and the sun burned bright above the horizon as 20 or so chatty teenage boys with surfboards tugged on wetsuits.

The rolling waves were about 61 degrees, a bit warmer than the air, and the surfers were ready to plunge. Nearby, a pair of anglers cast over the breakers, next to a private fishing pier.

This was more than an autumn outing for some boys of summer. St. Augustine Prep's surfing team and their coach, Kevin Morris, were preparing for the National Scholastic Surfing Association Northeast Conference High School Championship, set for this Sunday in Seaside Heights, waves and weather permitting.

St. Augustine is one of 10 New Jersey high schools with a competitive, non-varsity club surf team. With a school from Long Island, N.Y., they make up the association's Northeast Conference.

The powerhouse among them is Ocean City High School, conference champs for close to 20 straight years.

"Those guys have quite a legacy of success," said Morris, 41, a surfer since he was 11, who works as a buyer manager for the Shore's Heritage Surf & Sport retail chain.

But St. Augustine, an elite Catholic school in Atlantic County's Buena Vista Township, shows promise. In 2011, its first year in the conference, it placed second at the championship.

"Saint A's was really good," said Mark Niedema, Ocean City's longtime coach.

Competitions are informally arranged by the coaches. One team meets another at a designated beach and spectators are few. The only sanctioned meet that really counts is the championship, where fans, friends, and family cheer on the surfers.

St. A's team practices twice weekly - on the weekend and Wednesdays - and its members, like the prep's students, come from all over South Jersey.

Senior Nick Enos, 17, drove to practice from his home in Williamstown. Among those getting rides from parents were sophomore Chris Durbin, 15, from Shamong Township, and freshmen John McCall, 14, of Berlin, and Bill Martin, 14, of Medford. Another freshman, Jared Levitt, 15, of Margate, arrived by bicycle, his 9-foot longboard in a side rack.

All grew up at the Shore or spend their summers there, some working in surf shops. And all put in a few years of surfing - on shortboards, mostly - before enrolling at St. A's on the mainland.

Without the wetsuits or boards, nothing about their appearance, in St. Augustine hoodies and T-shirts, would lead you think they are surfers. Most play varsity sports, including crew, track, lacrosse, and basketball.

Baseball is his main sport, Enos said. But he hopes he can go to a college like the University of North Carolina Wilmington, which is on the coast and has a competitive surf club team.

At St. A's, the surfing squad flies a little below the radar because it's new and its season coincides with football, Enos said.

But "it's an up-and-coming sport," he said. "Everyone at the school is supportive."

Morris runs the practice like a meet, sending teams of six into the water for 15-minute heats. He blows an airhorn to signal the start and finish. Each surfer wears a different-colored jersey.

Their performances are scored on a 1-to-10 scale, and Morris, a certified judge who watched from behind gold-faced sunglasses, marked numbers down as each teenager rode a wave.

"Speed, power, and flow - that's what we look for," he said. "It's kind of subjective. We also reward risk."

Enos walked out of the water after a heat and offered a report on the conditions.

"It's not bad, a little chilly," he said. "Definitely a good surfing day. You can't complain when you get waves like this."

The waves were running three to four feet, typical for this time of year, Morris said.

They can be up to 10 feet when there's an offshore storm, which was the case at last year's championship. This year, with Hurricane Sandy in the neighborhood, could be another doozy - assuming the meet isn't postponed.

"It's when you come in that you feel it," Vince Bello, 17, a senior from the Turnersville section of Washington Township, said of the air temperature. "These suits are amazing."

When a team comes in, Morris gives its members pointers while another heads out.

"That was sick," he said as one of the top performers, sophomore Perry Siganos, 15, from Longport, executed a backside snap. "Sick" is good.

"There's a lot more risk on the open face when you throw a tail," the coach counseled two young surfers standing beside him.

Siganos, Jackson Baylinson, 15, and brothers Sean and David Taylor, 15 and 17, respectively, also compete during the summer on the Heritage stores' team.

Though St. A's is a boys' school, the team has one girl and was still trying Thursday to add another before the championship in order to field one full squad. Surfers may join another school's team if their own doesn't have one or if they are home-schooled.

A full squad, or team, consists of seven boys and two girls, of whom eight are shortboarders and one is a longboarder. Until the development of five- to seven-foot shortboards in the late 1960s, longboards, which can be up to 12 feet, were the standard wave riders. Partial teams also compete at the championship.

St. Augustine's sole girl is Wildwood resident Maddie Peterson, 14, who is home-schooled. She wasn't on hand Saturday, but her reputation was. Peterson placed first among girls at last October's championship, in Ocean City on the day a nor'easter dumped snow on much of the region.

St. A, which may field only one six-member squad, will be outgunned by Ocean City's four full and one partial teams, all made up of students from the school.

McCall's father, also named John, was sitting on a beach chair watching his son and the others on the water.

He doesn't mind making the trip from Berlin, he said.

"It's a passion, it's a love. It's something he started a few years ago," McCall said. "He's been progressing nicely. The coach is great. The kids are great. The fact that the school has a surf team is amazing to me.

"We usually grab breakfast afterward, for some father-son bonding," he said.

McCall expects he'll be making the trip for years to come. His 10-year-old, Nicholas, surfs and won a 10-and-under competition during the summer. Nicholas' twin, Caroline, also surfs. Since she will probably attend a school without a surf club, she may find a spot on the team, too.

He'll also be digging deeper into his pocket. A new board costs more than $500 and a wetsuit can run about $125.

As Saturday's practice ended, some of the boys planned to stay a little longer to ride more waves.

"They love it," said Martin's father, also named Bill. "They're always hoping there's a hurricane out at sea."

But there is such a thing as too close to shore. Larry Schmidt, the conference's director, was watching the weather intently Thursday as forecasters haggled over the path Sandy would take along the East Coast this weekend.

By the looks of things, Schmidt said, the championship would likely be postponed until next weekend. The final call will come Friday.

Contact Joseph Gambardello

at 856-779-3844 or jgambardello@phillynews.com.

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