Saturday morning in Huntington Beach dawned with a fresh shot of combo swell in the water and World Title intrigue hung in the air. With a number of former U.S. Open champions still in the draw, all of whom showed up with the intention of upsetting the current power balance at the top the ratings, World Title frontrunners Stephanie Gilmore and Lakey Peterson clearly had their work cut out for them.
Getting things going, Gilmore put in the cool, calculated performance that six World Titles affords. Using her impeccable rail work to weave from the outside to inside and connect the point-scoring dots, she did what she had to do to get through the heat in the challenging three-surfer format, but it was fellow Aussie Nikki Van Dijk that took the statement-making heat win.
"Oh yeah, I'm not afraid of the World Title show," said Van Dijk, who won the U.S. Open Junior event back in 2012. "I'm just doing my own thing, but if I can rustle up the action I'm more than happy to do so."
The next heat, featuring Lakey Peterson, Sally Fitzgibbons and Coco Ho, came down to the wire with multiple lead changes. Posting an 8.33, the highest single wave score, Peterson had to battle to get through - and it almost wasn't enough as Ho staged a last-second, fin-chucking comeback, ultimately ending up just short of the upset.
"Whether you're matching up against a top seed or the lower ones, all the battles are so close," explained a victorious Fitzgibbons, who claimed the U.S. Open title back in 2011. "You have to bring your best surfing. There are all these little decisions you have to make, so having a nice, clear mind going into the event is kind of pivotal to advancing. It allows you to produce a freer surfing and express yourself."
The World Title race plot thickened further in the last heat of the round. Brazil's Tatiana Weston-Webb faced off against two well seasoned Huntington vets in 2009 champ and local icon Courtney Conlogue and two-time Open junior champ Caroline Marks. Back from injury and feeling 100-percent, Conlogue brought the passion, dominating the heat from beginning to end. Winning the heat, Marks finished second while Weston-Webb's run came to a close - and with it potentially her hopes of winning the 2018 World Title.
"When you win events you're spoiling somebody else's goals…and I want to win," said a confident Conlogue. "Lakey, Steph, all the women are surfing really well right now, but those are the top. They're going head to head, but one result here that's just a little bit behind could substantially change the Title race down the line. Obviously, these conditions are tricky, but whoever can keep that levity and positive head space is going to get through to the end, I think."
And like that, the lineup for the final day is set. Tomorrow the Quarterfinals will kick off with Gilmore going up against 2015 Open champ Johanne Defay. Currently ranked No. 4 in the world, Gilmore's going to have to put on her game face.
"Every heat, every point matters," said Defay after beating three-time World Champ Carissa Moore today. "I want to have my own Jeep Leader Jersey someday."
In a clash of the Californians, Peterson and Conlogue will square off in the final heat of the Quarterfinals - one that is sure to be a grinder. And who knows, it could be a critical moment in the race for the 2018 World Title.
The next call will be Sunday morning at 7:00am PDT.
You can watch the Vans US Open of Surfing live on CBS Sports Network (US only, check local schedule), the WSL website, the WSL app, and Facebook.