If yesterday was ugly then today was almost indescribably beautiful. The sun came out and bathed the cliffs in a balmy Spring glow, the surf came up with stacks of double overhead lines powering through the Lane and the surfing was nothing short of spectacular. Today's Game was the first time in since Tom Curren won the Cold Water Classic 15 years ago that Steamer Lane's incredible potential as a competition venue was realized. It was everything you could ask for in but rarely see in a surf event – great waves, solid weekend crowd support, unexpected drama, passion and camaraderie. San Diego won in a classic nail biter finish, but the Santa Cruz team, which finished off its home stand 3-1, felt like anything but losers. Taylor Knox from the winning Sea Lions squad actually said after it was all over, "I wished Santa Cruz could have tied it up in the 4th so that we could have gotten to surf out there again in overtime."
Game 4 got off and running in the mid-morning with San Diego avoiding the slow start trap that snared OC, VC and LA. Oceanside's Jason Bennett strung together a series of strong carves for an 8.0 with Taylor Knox and Austin Ware also finding solid scores. Santa Cruz realized that had its first fight on its hands after watching everyone else all but roll over for them on Thursday and Friday. The Stormriders started off leisurely in the bottom of the first, but one of yesterday's heroes Josh Mulcoy saved them from getting in too deep of a hole by nabbing a 7.25. At the end of the first Santa Cruz found themselves behind at the end of a quarter for the first time in 2005.
In the top of the 2nd, San Diego pushed even harder with Jeremy Sherwin, Benji Weatherly and Kyle Knox all scoring waves over 6.0. Then Rob Machado paddled into the lined up wall off the Point and laid down a series of lightning quick toaster oven crisp turns for a big 8.75. San Diego had now gotten a lead and were building on it. They were surfing this Game with textbook precision.
Santa Cruz struck back in the bottom of the second when their clean-up hitter and one man wrecking crew, Kieran Horn, showing once again that he's capable of beating anyone in the world in home conditions. His opening 9.0 was poetry in motion. His teammates, however, weren't able to get anything above a 6.5 and they had to count a 4 from Adam Repogle, which made them fall farther behind.
In the top of the 3rd, San Diego went back to its methodical, giant killing work. Austin Ware threw down a 7.75 while Taylor Knox attacked lip after lip with reckless abandon and looked, going back to the 1990 analogy, like Elkerton to Horn's Curren. Knox was charging hard but was unable to put a series of maneuvers together until late in the heat when he came through with a clutch 8.5. The Stormriders thought that score was generous and set about trying to narrow the margin with fire in their eyes. Josh Loya, who surfed for the first time this year on Thursday due to a debilitating nerve injury in his triceps, shook off the rust on a perfect wave at the Indicator and got a 7.0, That ride lifted his team's spirits but SC wasted two timeouts in the heat and Peter Mel fell on a wave that would have given him at least a 6 or 7 and was unable to better his 4.5. The Sea Lion crew, now feeling its oats, cheered his blunder. After the quarter, the big wave legend Mel sat on the rocks at the foot of the cliff and quietly cursed himself, perhaps realizing that his mistake would come back to haunt his team.
San Diego started out the 4th Quarter strong yet again. Jeremy Sherwin found the first tube on the outside for a 7.0 and Rob Machado, looking fresh and spry as ever, ripped a wave off the Point to pieces for a spirit crushing 8.5. After that things got weird. A mentally unbalanced sponger jumped off the cliff, wearing only lime green trunks and no wetsuit, and tried to catch waves right in the contest area. 2005 Maverick's Surf Contest winner Anthony Tashnick, spending his 21st birthday surfing a few waves at Indicator and filling in as water security, was called into action. Tazzy paddled over the offending booger and calmly told him to exit the ocean immediately. The guy refused and Tazzy then blocked his path back outside and pushed him towards the cliffs. A thousand or so spectators were now yelling abuse at the guy and telling him to beat it. Peter Mel walked down to the water's edge and put in his two cents. The guy invited disaster upon himself by taunting Mel in the form of blown kisses. To the crowd's utter delight, Mel leaped into the water and swam toward the guy at terrifying speed. Together Mel and Tazzy then forced him in at the next staircase without throwing any punches. Amazingly, though, the guy wasn't done yet. He got out of the water and proceeded to strut up the sidewalk next to the scaffolding while groms threw rocks and ice plant at him. It was Santa Cruz at its weird and wacky best.
After the excitement had finally died down, there was a sense the Game was all but over as Santa Cruz now found itself so far behind that it was nearly impossible for them to catch up. The Stormriders began their last quarter with a monumental task at hand. They needed to score a massive 32.5 points just to force overtime. (Their previous high score for a quarter was only a 31 against Orange County.)
Adam Repogle, however, started narrowing the gap by pulling into a dry tube off the Point and smacking it on the inside for an 8.0. Ratboy and Homer Henard found a couple solid scores and kept the momentum going. Then Kieran Horn, perhaps the most money player a Game series has ever seen, lit into a wave with giant carves on the outside and an ultra-critical power slam on the inside. Score 9.5. The SC boys and local surf fans went mad, everyone believing the impossible was possible as Santa Cruz was now only 2 points behind with five minutes to go. It was a dream scenario, the perfect Hollywood set up where the scrappy local boys come though in the clutch. But Repogle, Ratboy and sub No'i Kaulukakui still had work to do. They had to find a way to improve their top scores by a combined 2 points to nab the victory. (Horn was not likely to improve upon his 9.5) Ratboy caught a wave and tried to twist and contort his way to the score, but it wasn't enough. Then a set poured through – a potentially quarter winning, sweep clinching set. Young SC rookie No'i K found himself in the spot at the Slot and took off on a beauty. He carved a fast and clean off the top, aid into an extended bottom turn and then set up for the move that would seal the victory – a layback gouge into the Middle Peak wedge swinging toward him. The crowd gasped as he carved into the maneuver and…dug a rail as his fins released. The SD bench stood up and cheered as the hometown crowd and SC bench groaned and looked to the horizon for signs of another set. It was not to be. The seconds ticked away and Santa Cruz, devoid of timeouts, was unable to stop the clock. Santa Cruz had achieved its highest total point total of the series, 100.5, but had still lost.
SD coach Mike Lamm had seen Santa Cruz's devastating form over the first few days and knew he his team had just achieved a major accomplishment. "We're having some beers tonight, boys," he said.
The spectators filed away and the regular Saturday crowd jumped into the icy waters of the Lane. All of the people who watched knew they had seen an amazing event, but those in the know realized it was more than that. On a day where everything came together for the plucky upstart Game program, a lot of competitors and aficionados thought they might have just seen the future of pro surfing. They were pumped up and couldn't wait for the next Game.
They won't have to wait long. The next series begins Wednesday at Leo Carrillo in Malibu, a South swell is predicted, and California's best are licking their chops and saying, "Game on!"