Surf’s Up
South Jersey high schools ride a wave of success
By Kate Morgan

Cooper Fortney, an 18-year-old graduate of Manasquan High School, is one of the greatest high school athletes in the country, but few people in New Jersey even know his team exists.

Fortney's teammates carry him from the water after the 2015 Northeast Championshi

Fortney’s teammates carry him from the water after the 2015 Northeast Championshi

In June, Fortney won the National Scholastic Surfing Association’s (NSSA) 2015 Interscholastic Championship. He’s the first East Coast surfer to win the title since Kelly Slater, a Florida native who is considered by many to be the best surfer in the world.

“You show up there and everyone’s like, ‘Oh, you’re from New Jersey?’” Fortney says. “They discredit you; they don’t think you can do what they can do. But I won, so I guess I can.”

The Manasquan High School Surfing Team, made up of 50 male and female athletes, placed 12th overall, just edging out their biggest rivals, the Ocean City team, who finished in 13th place.

There are more than a dozen high school surfing teams throughout the state, mostly in Shore locales like Ocean City and LBI. But Manasquan’s head coach, Kris Buss, knows many people outside those communities aren’t aware surfing is a high school sport in New Jersey.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people ask, ‘High schools have surfing teams?’” says Buss, 38.

The Manasquan High School Surfing Team celebrates Fortney’s championship win

The Manasquan High School Surfing Team celebrates Fortney’s championship win

“A lot of people in New Jersey’s Shore communities are passionate about surfing, but for everyone else it’s something that’s seen more as a recreational hobby. People are used to going to a football field on Friday nights, not going to the beach to watch a varsity surfing competition. But I think that as New Jersey teams continue to have stronger and stronger showings on a national stage, awareness will increase. The kids Cooper competed against are on the covers of national surfing magazines, and he walked away with it.”

Fortney took the top spot on a leaderboard full of surfers whose hometowns are far more likely surfing destinations – Huntington Beach, Calif.; Honolulu, Hawaii – and his win has made him something of a celebrity on the beach back home.

“Younger kids come up to him and want to talk to him. They follow him on Instagram,” Buss says.

“To be honest with you, we go out to the championships and we’re just excited to be there and to see the caliber of surfers we see. Never have we considered the possibility of winning a championship. When he won, we were going crazy on the beach. His teammates ran in and met him in the water and carried him in on their shoulders. It was the end to a really amazing season.”

Surfing is a fall sport, and teams in the state compete against one another at meets from September to November, accumulating points in an effort to qualify for the East Coast Championships, held every spring in Florida, and the National Championships, which take place in California every June.

Buss says the sport is growing in popularity at the high school level, with more schools joining the conference every year. His own team has experienced steady growth over his eight years as coach, and he hopes that growth begins to include even more young women.

“When girls are 10 or 11, they’re not being encouraged to practice so they can make the high school varsity surfing team,” he says. “At that age in soccer, lacrosse or field hockey, they’re really training to become a varsity player. So then they get to high school, and they’re not thinking about competitive surfing. It’s slowly changing as more and more younger girls realize there might be a surfing team for them to join once they get to high school. Five years ago there were two girls on the team, and this year I had 12. I think the more awareness there is about our teams, the more athletes – especially female athletes – are going to be interested.”

Manasquan seniors Pat Pompilio, Cooper Fortney, John Campo and Jessica Duerr celebrate four straight appearances at the national competition

Manasquan seniors Pat Pompilio, Cooper Fortney, John Campo and Jessica Duerr celebrate four straight appearances at the national competition

Buss is proud of the progress his team has made during his tenure. For nearly two decades, they’ve been on the heels of Ocean City, the team that took home 18 consecutive state championships.

“They just breed surfers in that town,” Buss says. “They have a huge surfing culture and a huge population of surfers. The passion in the community is incredibly strong toward surfing. It’s taken us a while to get where we are, but now we’re able to really compete with them.”

This year, Manasquan won the state title for the first time. It was the result, Fortney says, of a season’s worth of hard work, conditioning and drills.

“We train like every other sports team,” Fortney says. “We practice every day. We work out, we stretch, we run drills with our teammates. Surfing competitively is looked at as an individual contest, but you’re repping your school and accumulating points for your team as a whole. When you win, it’s a team effort.”

The biggest difference between NJ’s surfing teams and other high school sports is that, technically, surfing is considered a club. Though the public schools allot funding for a head coach’s salary, they can’t financially support the teams because the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association (NJSIAA) does not recognize surfing as a sport.

“Because it’s not sanctioned, there are some challenges, especially when it comes to money,” Fortney says. “My mom busts her butt fundraising – a lot of the parents do. We have to pay our own way when we go to competitions. That’s a lot of people to fly all the way out to California, but knowing we did it all on our own almost makes traveling that much better. It’s not a cheap sport either. A surfboard costs around $600, and a wetsuit is at least $300. I can go through a wetsuit in a season, and a board in a month. All of our team parents are really supportive. My mom is like the world’s most dedicated soccer mom – except she’s not on the sidelines, she’s on the beach.”

Buss says the other thing that sets surfers apart from their peers on the soccer or baseball teams is the inconsistent nature of the ocean.

“It’s a very unique scenario,” Buss says. “Every day when the baseball team goes out to practice, the field is there. But when we go out, we don’t always know what we’re going to get. We don’t always have waves. That’s also the most significant difference between us and a team from Hawaii or California. They have waves 95 percent of the time, because the Pacific swell is much more consistent than the Atlantic. But we’re still on the beach every day at 3:30, and if there are no waves, we’re doing long-distance runs, core workouts and body weight training. They’re held to the exact same standards as the football team.”

Unlike star football players though, most of the senior standouts on South Jersey’s high school surfing teams won’t be performing for college scouts. For many of these surfers, the next step is directly into a professional surfing career. In fact, many of New Jersey’s professional surfers began competing in professional events before graduation. Well-known pros like Rob Kelly and Jamie Moran got their starts representing their South Jersey high schools in NSSA competitions before building successful professional careers that produce plenty of sponsorship money.

Fortney, on the other hand, is headed to college. But that doesn’t mean he won’t be surfing.

“Right now I think I’m going to go to Brookdale, my local community college, maybe for a semester, and then I’ll transfer somewhere with a surf team,” he says. “There are a few schools in Florida I think I’d really like. California is cool, but I don’t think I could live there. I think I’m an East Coast surfer, and I always will be.”

August 2015
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