The World Surf League (WSL) Men's Qualifying Series (QS) Vans Pro QS 3,000 and Vans Pro Junior crowned Hiroto Ohhara and Cole Alves event champions, respectively. A slight increase in swell helped provide a finals day packed with explosive surfing from the two event champions in one-to-three foot windswell.
This marks Ohhara's first QS victory since the 2015 Vans US Open, as well as Alves' first-ever WSL win -- making it back-to-back Hawaii wins in the North America region.
Ohhara's Long-Awaited QS Win
The Men's QS Final featured Ohhara taking on Vans Pro standout Tyler Gunter, making both QS and Pro Junior Finals, along with an in-form Reo Inaba and Brasilian dark horse Flavio Nakagima. Inaba's fast start had the Japanese competitor at a 15.10 (out of a possible 20) heat total midway through the Final, but it was Ohhara's patience and wave selection that proved to be the difference maker -- finding a near-perfect 9.07 (out of a possible 10) in the last six minutes to turn the heat for a big win.
"It feels amazing to win this event after not getting a result this year and reminds me of winning the US Open (laughs)," Ohhara said. "I thought Reo was going to win that Final after he got those two scores to start, but I just stayed patient with priority and knew a wave would come. When it did I just wanted to give it my all. I could feel the momentum from winning the Surf Ranch Pro trials coming here, it happened when I won the US Open after winning the Hurley trials for Trestles, so I'm so happy it worked out like that again."
Ohhara's Surf Ranch Pro trials win was a pleasant surprise to the 21-year-old after surfing the wave for the first time days before this event.That confidence showed throughout the week in Virginia Beach after posting a remarkable 9.60, matching the event's highest single-wave score, during his Quarterfinal bout. A nail-biting Semifinal that witnessed Ohhara move from fourth-place to first-place twice in the heat, eliminating brothers Santiago and Alejo Muniz, before eventually earning first. Now, Ohhara takes this momentum shift toward Europe for a chance at more valuable points.
"It was great to have a lot of my friends on finals day and to win with Reo getting second is great," Ohhara added. "I also feel like this is a turning point in the season and now I have some good points heading to Europe. It's going to be hard work with another QS 3,000 coming next before the QS 10,000, but I'll do my best and see how far I can go in both events."
Inaba Stuns En Route to Runner-up Finish
A stunning Semifinal performance from eventual runner-up Inaba eliminated 2016 Vans Pro Champion and 2017 Finalist Evan Geiselman, along with the talented Australian Reef Heazlewood. The Chiba, Japan, native earned 2,250 crucial points toward a late surge in the back-half of 2018 after powering through some of the toughest Virginia Beach conditions in recent memory. But, he remained all smiles solidifying a 1-2 finish with fellow countrymen Ohhara and now looks forward for more.
"That was such a fun heat with Hiroto and I thought I was on the way to winning after getting that start, but he got that one at the end (laughs)," Inaba said. "This gives me some confidence and gets me fired up for the next events. It was really tough out there, but home is kind of like this and I was training hard before this one. It's really good to see that hard work pay off and I want to keep doing better so my goal is to win an event now."
Gunter's mind-blowing run through this event ended with a fourth-place finish in the Men's QS, as Nakagima's third-place moves him up the rankings a nudge and a lot more confidence.
Alves Breaks Through With Incredible Win
Just prior to Ohhara's inspiring performance, Maui, Hawaii's, Alves earned his maiden WSL chair-up the beach after a comeback victory of his own over Gunter, Nick Marshall, and the sole East Coast representative Bo Raynor. Heading into the dying minutes, Alves was in need of a 5.74 and the Atlantic Ocean came to his aid when needed most. The 17-year-old was given a golden opportunity and he didn't let it go to waste, opening up with a solid air-reverse that he was able to spin out of before laying into multiple, forehand power turns to earn a near-perfect 9.17.
The score left Gunter in need of a 9.50 with just over two minutes remaining, putting Marshall and Raynor into a combination situation requiring two new scores. Despite not earning points out of region, Alves garnered some points by making it to Round 4 of the Men's QS event and now heads south to North Carolina with renewed vigor.
"I'm so stoked to represent for Hawaii again after some of the guys have won this one," Alves. "I feel like this is my breakthrough event after never really doing well in any contests. To make a few heats in the Men's QS then to win this, I'm speechless. That wave came out of nowhere and I knew I only needed a 5-point score, but I wanted to push it because I could've left the door open for a guy like Tyler (Gunter) who's been on fire. Now I'll go to the Outer Banks for that QS 1,000 and I feel like I've built a lot of confidence in my surfing this week heading there."
Gunter's Inspiring Campaign in Virginia Beach
While Alves stole the win, eventual runner-up Gunter's performance will not be forgotten. The Newport Beach, California, native came out of the gates firing with a Men's QS Quarterfinal win and carried that right into a Pro Junior Semifinal win. This feat was accomplished by Samuel Pupo, finishing fourth in both events, in 2016 and the two find themselves in rare company together.
After losing North America No. 1 Crosby Colapinto, No. 2 Eithan Osborne, and No. 3 Kade Matson early on, there was a lot of potential for Gunter to move up and now finds himself at the top of the North America Rankings heading into the RVCA Pro Junior.
"That was such a crazy day and to make two Finals is just unreal, especially in a QS 3,000," Gunter said. "I was just stoked to be in the Quarters for the QS and after I won that heat, made it through to the Pro Junior Final so I really wanted to make that QS Semifinal. I woke up this morning feeling really good and I actually wasn't too nervous, when I usually am, but that was awesome. After losing in the first Round of the US Open Pro Junior, I was bummed and just wanted to give this one everything I had."
"It feels so good and, not in a mean way, but everyone in front of me got bad results and I was able to capitalize," Gunter said. "I've got two second-place finishes and a fifth to hold onto which is really reassuring. I'm just excited to be making my goals of getting back to Worlds happen so I'll have to keep this going."
Marshall and Raynor Make Their Move
This marks Encinitas, California, surfer Marshall's first-ever Final and has plenty of steam moving forward after a third-place finish here in Virginia Beach. But, for North Carolina's Raynor, the ramifications of his fourth-place result put him under 100 points behind Matson for a chance at moving into the Top 4 in Newport Beach September 21-23.
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The next North America QS event will be the WRV Outer Banks Pro Men's and Women's QS 1000 pres. by Pacifico held in Nags Head, NC, August 29 - September 2.
The next North America Pro Junior event will be the RVCA Pro Junior held in Newport Beach September 21 - 23.