Continuing our 2017 Preview series, we present the third and biggest group of surfers on the men's Championship Tour (CT): The hidden gems.
These 15 surfers are chomping at the bit to make their mark in the rankings, and shake things up along the way. It's a given that some will be spoilers, others simply survivors, while one or two could break through to become World Title contenders.
As it stands, Kauai's Sebastian Zietz -- aka Seabass -- is on the upswing. Sitting on the Tour edge since he qualified in 2012, it seemed he couldn't find his footing over the last couple years, even falling off the Tour, just barely, by the end of 2015.
About this time last year, though, Seabass showed up to the Gold Coast anyway, to let the WSL officials know he was available if a window opened. Bede Durbidge and Owen Wright were actually injured (and as the third man out), CT commissioner Kieren Perrow granted Seabass the spot. He made the most of the opportunity and surfed his way into Round Five.
It was in West Oz, however, where Seabass really made his mark, getting the first CT win of his career at Margaret River. The rest of his year was pretty consistent -- with a 5th and 9th on the European leg -- landing him at No. 12 in the world by year's end.
As for 2017? Knowing that he can win CT events and finish as strongly as he did will give him the fire to bag another win. Threatening at any wave on Tour, Seabass will be gaining attention when putting that kind of confidence into action.
Commonly a Top 10, if not Top 5, World Title contender during the years he's been on Tour (when not injured), Owen Wright became a household name when he made three Finals in a row -- all versus Kelly Slater -- during his sophomore season in 2011. Owen beat Slater in one of the three, by the way, at the Quik Pro New York (an event that included the biggest payday in the history of CT comps).
Save for a couple injuries over the years, Owen was actually in Title contention going into the 2015 Pipe Masters when he suffered a serious head injury before the event at Pipeline began. It was a tragic injury that kept him out of the entire 2016 season, with his doctors wondering if he'd ever be able to return to competitive surfing.
Through Owen's steadfast determination, will and maybe even some inspiration from his own sister Tyler (who won her first World Title last year), Owen's back. He's on the 2017 CT as an injury wildcard and also surfed earlier this month in the Maitland Toyota Pro Qualifying Series contest in Newcastle, AUS.
"It felt amazing to get back out there and compete -- it was really emotional," Wright said after his first heat. "There is no doubt that this has been the hardest year of my life, a real rollercoaster ride. Now I'm through the bad and on the other side of it. I feel better, stronger and really excited to have this rash-shirt on and competing again."
With a new lease on life, new year ahead of him and yet another chance to pick up where he left off (vying for the World Title), Owen is a well-known dark horse with one hell of a comeback story that he'll be writing all season.
"I'm a momentum surfer, I think, and once I have some momentum I find it easier to keep it rolling," Josh Kerr said recently.
Indeed, after first getting on Tour back in '07, Kerr had a bumpy go of it. He even fell off Tour a couple times during those first few years. But since 2011, Kerr has stayed within the Top 10, or just a few spots outside of it, every year. Always an exciting, unpredictable surfer, Kerr is just as capable in huge hollow surf as he is punting full-rotations in sloppy beachbreaks. The man has even started surfing in big wave contests, winning last year's Todos Santos Challenge. What's his focus for this year? An elusive CT win.
"I'm looking for a win, that's been a major driver for a while now. Having lost my major sponsor recently, it has given me even more motivation to prove myself. The theory is that when times get tough, you get tougher, right? So that's what I am going to do." Certainly, if any threat on Tour has the sheer experience and ability to pull it off this year, it's Kerr.
A 12-year CT vet, Ace Buchan had a couple great finishes within the Top 10 his first few years, but for nearly a decade since, the goofy footer from Avoca Beach has maintained a consistent mid-teens ranking. Which isn't anything to be upset about, as he usually has no problem re-qualifying and finishes with a number of respectable results each year.
A prime example? The year Buchan beat Kelly Slater in the Final at perfect Teahupo'o during the Billabong Pro Tahiti. Just this past year, Ace made two Semifinals -- back-to-back in Fiji and Tahiti. Indeed, the Tour isn't all perfect lefthanders, although there are more than a few good ones on the roster, but even if Ace is going the opposite way his lethal backhand hack has nearly 12 years of CT-sharpening.
Still with only two years of CT experience under his belt, a quick look back to his outrageous 2015 rookie campaign is in order. The Brazilian dark horse was actually in the running for the Title toward the back end of the season. The kid made three Quarterfinals, a Semifinal and a Final that year to finish No. 7 in the world and a Rookie of the Year trophy.
Last year he started strong with two 3rds in a row, the remainder of his season was a little lackluster. Regardless, Italo is no longer an unknown. Absolutely everyone on Tour knows he can win heats at every venue and that strikes fear into his opponents. He's the kind of guy that will attempt and stomp a 6-foot-high Hail Mary air when his back's against the wall (a la his Final in Portugal against Filipe Toledo in 2015). This could be Italo's year to bust back into the Top 10 -- and stay there.
"Caio might be one of the most underrated guys on Tour," said fellow 2016 rookie class member, Jack Freestone, halfway through the year. And wouldn't ya know it, Ibelli finished ranked No. 16 in the world and won the Rookie of the Year award.
But while most know the Sao Paulo native for explosive, fins-free surfing, he actually earned his Rookie of the Year title through a sturdy consistency, making four Round Fives and a Quarterfinal finish in West Oz. No longer content with mere consistency, Ibelli said, "I wish I could have gotten myself into a Final like a few of the other guys did." With those first-year jitters now out of his system, it's certainly possible for Caio to get into a Final in 2017.
One of the most-anticipated rookies to come on tour and rep for the somewhat lonely Stars and Stripes, everyone knew Conner Coffin deserved a spot competing with the world's best. Plus, it's common knowledge that the kid can carve up a turkey on a right hand wall like your granddaddy on Thanksgiving day.
Not surprisingly, he got a couple solid results early -- a 9th at Snapper and a 5th at Bells -- both long right points that resemble his home break, Rincon.
Unable to replicate those scores for much of the year, Portugal came around just in time and Conner found his footing again at the big hollow beach break. Taking out nearly the entire field, Coffin made his first Final finishing runner-up to John John Florence. A Final, however, is a rookie's biggest motivator -- it proves their threat status, not only to the world, but to themselves during a pivotal inaugural season.
Heading into and up and down 2017, Conner's got a few things on his side. One, is a new sponsor in the form of Rip Curl, a backer that suits his vibe. Second, is his coach and friend, Brad Gerlach, the former CT superstar who helped Coffin qualify in 2015. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, is Coffin's talent in bigger surf, an advantage that we will definitely see when the surf gets heavier this year.
If Stu Kennedy's 2017 is anything like last season, then fans can anticipate a man who surely knows how to make an entrance. Indeed, about this time last year, many may have considered Kennedy just a 27-year-old QS grinder. But the dark horse on a Firewire stepped onto the scene at Snapper and dismantled three World Champs -- the rookie beat Kelly Slater, Gabriel Medina and John John Florence for an astounding 3rd place finish.
Kennedy's the kind of competitor that will fight tooth and nail to keep his spot on the Championship Tour (he has a young family to feed!). And 2017 is an empty canvas for Stu's brand of artistry -- the type that's upsetting the system when no one even saw it coming. Confident, nimble and riding boards that give his surfing an uncanny shade of Fanning, Stu's sophomore season is looking threatening to the rest of the field.
Some may have wondered if last year's 18-year-old rookie from Huntington Beach, Kanoa Igarashi, was too green for the big leagues. Sure, he knew how to win QS comps, but could he cut it in heats against actual World Champs and Title contenders? He made an early statement on the Gold Coast with a Round Five finish, then preceded to win every of his Round Two heats... only to lose in evert Round Three heat until the tour's final stop at Pipeline.
But what's looking bright for Kanoa for the 2017 season was the Billabong Pipe Masters, where he grew from boy to man. Seemingly against all odds, Igarashi beat event favorites Kelly Slater and Jordy Smith on the road to the Final against eventual champ, Michel Bourez. In a wild turn of events, Kanoa double-qualified for the CT (he finished in the top 10 on the QS rankings) to push Ezekiel Lau into this year's Top 34 roster. But clearly it was those two consecutive scalps (of Slater and Smith) that Igarashi will bring with him onto the new season.
Kanoa recently kick-started his year with a win at the Shoe City Pro QS 1,000 at his home break, Huntington Beach Pier. So the 19-year-old's momentum is already in motion.
"His timing on his backhand is just… perfect," three-time World Champion Mick Fanning has said of the young, lightening-quick Brazilian, Wiggolly Dantas.
Indeed, we've saw this perfection in action during Dantas' rookie season back in 2015. Last year, however, not as much, with Wiggolly re-qualifying just barely in December. While Dantas may have had a typical sophomore slump, most of the waves on Tour suit his surfing splendidly. Specifically, the large hollow lefts and long reeling right-handers (the perfect spotlight for that backhand Mick was talking so glowingly about).
For 2017, that narrow re-qualification he experienced in December should ultimately put a fire under Wiggolly's butt to give his third year on Tour everything he's got. And Wiggolly at 100 percent could be a Top 10 contender.
When Miguel Pupo broke onto the scene in 2011, he and Gabriel Medina were leading what was coined "the Brazilian Storm." (See: Pupo's giant Nike Lowers Pro Prime win). The last couple of years haven't been too kind to Miggy, however. He barely re-qualified in 2016.
But if Miguel can channel the shade of genius we saw last year in Portugal -- where he took down Kelly Slater in pumping Supertubos and go onto a Quarterfinal finish -- he will remain the threat (and key player in the Brazilian Storm) that he has always been.
Back on Tour after a year of healing a pelvis broken while surfing the 2015 Pipe Masters, North Stradbroke Island, Australia's, Bede Durbidge has been a perennial dark horse, if not World Title contender since 2005. An actual Top 5 competitor through the late-00's, plus a Pipe Master, Bede finished 2nd in the world in 2008 and for the last decade has slugged it out with competitive icons and the new guard alike.
Always an upsetter, with an uncanny way of halting the event favorite's momentum, he coached current World Champion John John Florence to the Title last year while he was sidelined with injury. Indeed, in 2017 it will be interesting to see the fired-up, lanky regularfooter face off against all the rookies, using the strategies he'd taught John John in the process. Surely Bede didn't slip John John ALL his secrets…
In Jeremy Flores' decade on Tour, he's been a fierce threat and a real contender, finishing within the Top 10 five times.
While 2016 wasn't one for the books for the fiery Frenchman from Reunion Island, that might not necessarily be a bad thing for 2017. In fact, Flores seems to function at a higher level coming from behind. Recall, a year and a half ago, when Flores hit his skull on the reef in Indonesia on a freesurf trip, putting him on the sidelines for J-Bay. His doctors wondered how long it'd take him to get back in the water, if at all, that year.
Battling bouts of dizziness and headaches, Flores donned a helmet in firing Teahupo'o conditions and took out the world's best to win the Billabong Pro Tahiti. Not that his win in Tahiti was extraordinary, far from it. His other CT win was at the 2010 Pipe Masters, not to mention his outstanding performance at the Code Red swell in Tahiti back in 2011. Jeremy's comfy in the reefy big stuff.
After a stunning rookie season back in 2010 -- the year he beat Slater in the Final in Brazil, a whole nation cheering the then-grommet on to victory -- Jadson Andre's had to re-qualify through the QS nearly every year since.
But as far as 2017 goes, one thing is certain: Jadson performs when his life depends on it. Case in point: last Fall in Portugal, when things weren't looking so hot for Andre. In the next three QS events heading into Pipe, the bubbly Brazilian took home a 2nd, a 5th and 7th at a 6,000-point event and the following two 10,000s. It was just what he needed to get him back into the re-qualification game.
Clearly, if Andre knows he should be doing anything better this year, it'll be treating his first half of the CT season like he usually treats the second.
Perhaps the most anticipated of last year's rookie field, mostly in part to his epic freesurf clips and featured video parts, Jack had a rough first year filled with some roller-coaster ups and downs. Certainly, the first low point was tearing his MCL on the Gold Coast and missing the next two events. That was followed by a giant comeback where he finaled in Rio against John John Florence. Which came after knocking out 2014 World Champ Gabriel Medina, much to the dismay of the cheering home-team crowd.
After a solid showing and Quarterfinal finish in Ballito (on the QS Tour) it looked like Jack was finally on the upswing, but the rest of his year was pretty lackluster. Freestone re-qualified by the skin of his teeth at the Vans World Cup at Sunset, just 50 points clear of Ezekiel Lau.
But that was then and this is now. And the now is Jack Freestone's blank slate, free of any video obligations, rookie year expectations and nagging injuries. 2017 is a whole new opportunity to surf the way Jack knows he can, regardless of how anybody thinks he should. Plus, if he can make a Final during his first season, he's already proved he's got the class and quality to do it again.