New Jersey. A state known for two things: a turnpike and tomatoes. Now you can add a third: competitive surfing, as New Jersey has seen three epic contests this autumn. The Fosters Tour’s O’Neill Pro in Belmar and Heritage Rip Curl Pro in Sea Isle City, with the help of a few solid swells, both brought a tremendous amount of exposure to NJ surfing, offering a combined total of 5 WQS Rating points and ${{{100}}},000.

October’s Smith Optics Garden State Grudge Match in Seaside Heights promises zero WQS points and $3,000 to first place only. There is no scaffolding, no three-day party and no beer-soaked fake bolt-ons. There is, however, something that attracts young local rippers and former WCT contenders alike.

It’s pride, a valuable commodity in New Jersey, and none of the invitees was going to miss a shot at holding up the Grudge Match Title Belt on Sunday, October 12. In the 2002 Grudge Match, Dean Randazzo of Ocean City downed all challengers in the beefy aftermath of a fall nor’easter. The contestants loved the ‘luck of he draw’ seeds, the man-on-man heats and the progressive format.

As swell after swell graced the Jersey Shore this fall, the trash talking began early. Each surfer wanted a crack at the guy who beat him last year, his protege, the guy from the shop across town, his best friend, the guy who looked at him funny when he was 12 . .. .whoever. Basically everyone claimed a heavy personal reason to beat each competitor. Meanwhile, Northeast Smith Optics Reps Rob Cloupe and Rob Zselescky were sitting back smugly letting the angst build.

“Everyone is gunning for someone,” said Cloupe, who hoped the Atlantic would produce as it had the year before.”

Early in the week, competitors were already calling out their victims.

“I will fear no one,” claimed 19-year-old Andrew Gessler, “I hope I get Dean [Randazzo] in my first heat.”

Everyone thought the 2002 Eastern Surfing Association Men’s Champ was kidding. Then Gessler drew Randazzo in Round 1.

In a carbon copy of last year’s conditions, another nor’easter was heading to sea, leaving familiar six foot plus gray lefts behind at the contest’s start. Gessler snuck to the end of Casino Pier, leapt into the water and proceeded to send the champ home early.

Says Judge Mark Tesi, “As I’m watching the surfers in the previous heat battle for position in the storm surf, I see a slight silhouette with a surfboard teetering at the end of the 35-foot high pier and we all watched as he cannonballed into the impact zone.”

It was the first bold move in a day of brazen heroics. As the man-on-man heats saw more Jersey surfers get “whacked,” Strathmere’s Kevin Morris got a filthy Seaside Barrel. Long Beach Island’s board breaker Ben McBrien came from behind to oust Pier local Sam Hammer on a borrowed board. Matt Keenan, of Ocean City, made Seaside’s Pier look like a pointbreak, throwing five and six fans each wave.

Justin Citta, of Toms River, spent the day playing with 5-month old son Dylan on the beach, taking short breaks to throw his tail around and boost airs. Atlantic City boy Frank Walsh showed the size of his skee-balls with a devastating backside attack.

The final was a classic Ocean City student-mentor showdown. 28-year-old Matt Keenan has been bringing along the young Gessler for years.

“We’re from the same town and I’m so proud of him,” explains Keenan, “I got him his first sponsor and I’ve always tried to coach him.”

Apparently, Keenan was holding out on a few tricks, particularly, how to nab the biggest set wave and dissect it, en route to the 2003 Grudge Match Title. Upon victory, he could only praise his competitor.

“He doesn’t even realize how good he is. Pretty soon, he’s going to leave us all in the dust.”

As Keenan hugged his father, the pride was apparent. Keenan only has a year to keep the belt though. The trash talking for ’04 has already begun. Jon Coen

Photos courtesy of Ann Donato and Tom Spader. For a full selection of ripping images go to www.localswell.com