Three summers ago, Charlie Current never expected a delay of game.
Current traveled to California in 2019 with his colleagues on the University of North Florida Surf Team. When the men's individual scores came up, he placed fourth. The UNF team came in second in the country.
Nobody imagined UNF would have to wait so long for another shot.
"We thought we were going to be able to go right back the next year," Current said.
After an interruption that never seemed to end, the UNF Surf Team is swooping back to the West Coast for the National Scholastic Surfing Association championships in Dana Point, Calif.
For three days of competition, from Friday to Sunday, the UNF surfers will challenge their wave-riding skills against the best college surfers from both coasts.
Year after year in the 2010s, UNF staked its claim as a top contender in the world of collegiate surfing.
But not yet No. 1. For some, like newly-graduated Cameron Alvarez, this is the last chance.
"What I'm looking forward to is winning," Alvarez said. "I saw an Instagram post from NSSA, and it was saying UNF has gotten second place something like the last five years. And I'm like, 'All right, it's time to change that.'
"I want to win so bad, especially since it's my last one."
UNF weathers the delay
While the national championships have long remained the domain of Pacific schools like Point Loma Nazarene, San Diego State and UC-Santa Barbara, UNF steadily chipped away at the West Coast dominance during the 2010s.
They came especially close in 2019, placing second at the national championships, only nine points behind winner Cal State-San Marcos. But the West Coast stranglehold on the trophy carried on.
Current finished fourth that year in the men's individual shortboard competition. Avery Aydelotte, this year's East Coast runner-up, placed sixth in the women's individual finals.
Meanwhile, UNF had gained a reputation as a premier program for young surfers up and down the shores of the Atlantic, amassing the kind of depth across the roster to challenge for championships and build a competitive but cooperative team spirit.
"I'm trying to surf with [teammates] and surf the best that we can for our team, and it's honestly more fun that way," said Sophie Falzone, among the UNF surfers returning from the 2019 squad.
The future looked bright for UNF surfing in 2019. The future had to wait.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic slammed UNF's spring and other NSSA competition to a halt — for a portion of the spring, surfers couldn't even work out in the water while Northeast Florida's beaches were closed.
Then COVID-19 continued to disrupt the NSSA surf scene in 2021, a messy season marred not only by the pandemic but also an October pipeline spill that disgorged an estimated 25,000 gallons of oil into the waters off Huntington Beach, Calif. UNF missed out on nationals again.
During that delay, the Ospreys lost several of their most experienced surfers to graduation. For those that remain, the second chance is sweet.
"We're just really stoked to go back out, finally. It feels like there was such a question on whether we were going to be able to compete the last couple of years," Current said.
Keeping the team afloat
Surf or no surf, amid the long competitive layoff, UNF's surfers have remained active off the water.
Unlike varsity sports operated by the athletic department, surfing at UNF is conducted at the club level, which means that participants must take on key roles in organizing and fundraising for the team's activities.
So along with the action on the waves, the team has spent months connecting with local sponsors including Smoothie King, Sunrise Surf Shop and Salt Life Food Shack, as well as receiving support from the Jacksonville Board Riders Club and coordinating plans with UNF administrators.
"We have to get funding from [the university] so they can send us out there, but also communicating with sponsors, making T-shirts and selling them, working with donations, charitable, fundraising, all that kind of stuff," said Alvarez, the club's former president.
They've taken on the financial side — the team launched a GoFundMe page in March, which has generated more than $3,000 toward expenses for the trip — and the fun side, like a May presentation on surfing for students at Neptune Beach Elementary School.
For close to half of the Ospreys' nine-surfer A-team scheduled to compete in California, the NSSA nationals will be a new experience. Among them is C.J. Rogers from Fernandina Beach, who said he's previously surfed in California but never in competition.
"You like to tell people that you don't get nervous at all, but I think about it a little bit," he said. "I'm like, I really just want to do well, but I try not to overthink it."
Ready to swoop again
Despite the long delay since the last national competition, UNF hasn't missed a beat.
"We still had a lot of surf contests that we could do here, and luckily we've had pretty good waves lately," Current said. "So we've all been surfing a lot. I think we're all in tip-top shape right now, ready to go."
California, though, is its own challenge, a surfscape far different from the Florida waters that periodically recede into a slumber of lake-like tranquility.
Fortunately for the Ospreys, their itinerary gives them a little extra time to prepare.
"That's the benefit of the fact that we get to go out there a few days early and get some practice reps in," Rogers said. "I'm really happy for that."
The motivation to finally win in California burns particularly bright for surfers like Falzone, also in her last ride as an active Osprey. A Jacksonville native, she was part of UNF's team at the 2019 nationals, and she's been competing in NSSA junior events since age 11.
"The waves there are a lot more powerful. Even just going under a wave, you feel it," Falzone said. "Surfing here, we surf fast because the waves don't last as long and we want to maintain our speed and everything. Going out there, the waves are a lot slower and longer, so it's really about figuring out the waves properly."
Going by their current form, at least in the Atlantic Ocean, UNF's surfers are reading the waves just fine.
In April, at the East Coast Regional Championships in New Smyrna Beach, UNF captured its sixth consecutive title for Atlantic surfers, scoring 113 points to runner-up UNC Wilmington's 54. UNF's Blake Speir won the college men's individual East Coast title, with Falzone placing first in the college women's category.
For three years, UNF's surfers have watched and waited. As they swap the Atlantic for the Pacific, they're marking 2022 as the year when, maybe, they finish on top.
"One last swoop and we'll take it home," Alvarez said.
Clayton Freeman covers high school sports and more for the Florida Times-Union. Follow him on Twitter at @CFreemanJAX.
This article originally appeared on Florida Times-Union: After COVID wait, University of North Florida Surf Team in national championships