The meaning of a dark horse is easy enough to define, but identifying one is a murkier endeavor. When the event window for the Vans World Cup opens on Saturday at Sunset Beach, a litany of QS dark horses -- unexpected long shots -- will hope to etch their names alongside a list of legends who've stood atop the podium at Paumalu (Sunset's traditional Hawaiian name).
Sunset Beach itself is an enigma. A wave that possesses a Rubik's Cube full of variables to contend with -- swell, tide, wind, angle, positioning, equipment, fear -- among a myriad of intangibles. The diverse list of legends who've solved the puzzle and raised the World Cup hardware at Sunset Beach runs deep, including (but not limited to): MIke Ho, the father of Mason and Coco, and who also three-peated from 1983-85); Bobby Owens, the Hawaiian ginger; Gary "Kong" Elkerton, the aggro Aussie; Makaha-raised Sunny Garcia (2x champ), and Gold Coaster Joel Parkinson (3x winner).
However, precedent for a dark-horse winner exists as recently as 2013. That year, current Championship Tour (CT) surfer Ezekiel Lau took the title as a 20-year-old regional trialist, not to mention Raoni Monteiro's surprising victory in 2010. Digging deeper into recent history, the late 1990s were especially rich with dark horse champs like Australians Shane Powell (1995), Mike Rommelse (1997) and Zane Harrison (1999).
Explaining the ins and outs of qualification can sometimes be a complicated equation, here's a quick breakdown, borrowing liberally from writer Ben Mondy:
As it stands, if we assume a cutoff of 19,000 points to qualify for the CT via the Qualifying Series (QS), we potentially have six surfers locked in for the CT for 2018 -- Jesse Mendes, Griffin Colapinto, Kanoa Igarashi, Yago Dora, Tomas Hermes and Willian Cardoso. On the QS, only the five best results count for each surfer's year-end tally. The key, then, is improving on your worst result. Pat Gudauskas, for example, is ranked No. 17 with 12,850 points, but is counting 1550 points as his worst result (from 9th at the Australian Open of Surfing). To improve his overall tally he'll need a result that bags more than 1550 points. If he were to make the Quarterfinals at Sunset, no small feat, he would net a minimum 3000 points which would improve his overall tally by 1450 points. That, however, still wouldn't be enough to reach the magical 19,000 points. He'll need at least a 2nd, and the 8000 point reward that comes with it, to guarantee his return to the CT.
Here's a glance at the current batch of Qualifying Series dark horses looking to use the final QS10,000 of the season as a launching pad onto the 2018 Championship Tour:
Current QS Rank: No. 17 (down 1 spot following the Hawaiian Pro)
Rating Points: 12,850
Worst QS Result: 1550
Requirement: 2nd place (8,000) for a minimum of 7,700
San Clemente's Positive Vibe Warrior Pat Gudauskas will enter the Vans World Cup hoping to go one step further than younger brother Tanner's heroic charge at Sunset last year. Tanner dueled Ezekiel Lau, Jack Freestone and Marc Lacomare in a race to secure one of the final two qualifying positions in 2016, making the Final but coming up just short. With a CT spot within his grasp, Pat G. will bring the same sense of urgency, positive energy and aggression for which the Gudang Clan is well-known, plus he'll be carrying the added incentive of taking down his main sponsor's showcase event.
Current QS Rank: QS No. 18 (up 6 spots)
Rating Points: 12,305
Worst QS result: 550
Requirement: 2nd place (8,000) for a minimum of 7,245
Unfortunately for Andre, this is familiar territory as he seems to be perpetually living on the bubble of qualifying or getting bounced year after precarious year. If you were to ask the surfers on Tour, to a man they'd say he's one of the most well liked surfers on the Tour. And although he's not most senior Brazilian (that honor goes to Adriano de Souza), he's become the elder statesman and mentor to the ever-growing ranks of young Brazilians populating the CT. Andre will need to at least repeat his clutch performance from Sunset last year, where he surfed his way into the Semifinals and secured requalification. It'll be an even bigger uphill climb this season, but if anyone knows what it takes to grind his way to another year competing at the elite level, it's Jaddy.
Current QS Rank: No. 21 (up 12 spots)
Rating Points: 11,750
Worst QS result: 700
Requirement: 2nd place (8,000) for a minimum of 7,950
With his 6'0" frame and long wingspan, Leonardo Fioravanti's built like an NBA shooting guard. And like another tall and lanky European currently on Tour, Frederico Morais, Fioravanti surfs big, compressing and expanding his body to full effect, exploited his size and leverage to throw huge plumes of spray. His coach, Jake Patterson (who won two World Cup titles of his own during his pro career), dropped a micro-edit on social media of Leo on Thanksgiving Day, a short video clip that including swooping carves, a chunky tube and one wicked under-the-hook snap in the Sunset bowl that should send shivers up the spines of his competition. No doubt, having a guy like Patterson in his corner should pay dividends for the Italian, as well.
Current QS Rank: No. 27 (up 10 spots)
Rating Points: 11,250
Worst QS result: 1,100
Requirement: 1st place (10,000 points) for a minimum of 8,650
Josh is part of the legendary Moniz clan, a local family embedded in the North Shore surfing community. Led by family patriarch Tony, who during his the peak of his career in the 1980s was one of Hawaii's best surfers, Josh is a second generation pro surfer mentored by his dad and pushed by his younger brother, Seth. Of all the surfers on this list, Moniz knows Sunset the best, having graduated from the keiki pack at Val's Reef up to full-fledged West Peak charger like his old man. Riding the momentum of a 9th place finish at Haleiwa, the young Hawaiian will be hoping to get on a roll and join fellow Islanders Zeke Lau and Keanu Asing as last chance qualifiers for the CT.
Current QS Rank: No. 29 (down 7 spots)
Rating Points: 10,905
Worst QS result: 555
Requirement: 1st place (10,000 points) for a minimum of 8,650
By now even most casual surf fans know about Wright's lineage: younger brother to Women's World Champ, Tyler, and World No. 5, Owen. Known best for his explosive free-surfing antics, Mikey impressed at Snapper during the 2017 Quik Pro Gold Coast, showing tactical nuance and heat management. The Aussie wildman will need to throw caution to the wind and go mad at Sunset, however, if he wants to qualify for the 2018 Tour. Arriving with just under 11,000 points it's a big ask to get up into the 19,000 range, but he's certainly got the chops to make it happen if he can string together a series of heat wins. He'll need to focus on the difficult task at hand, and avoid distraction from his sister's quest to go back-to-back for the World Title over on Maui.