WILDWOOD CREST - With about 200 yards remaining in the doubles row of the 39th Cape May County Lifeguard Championships Monday night, Avalon's Gary Nagle and Dave Giulian dug a little deeper.

The crew had a slight lead over Sea Isle City's Danny Rogers and Pat Scannieco, and Wildwood Crest's Pat Bakey and Jake Klecko.  Suddenly, a wave formed and began to roll toward the beach.  Whoever caught it would likely win the race.

"I told Dave, 'This is our wave and we have to get on it,'" Nagle said. "It was time to empty whatever was left in the tank."

Avalon hopped on the swell and rode it across the finish line to win the event for the second straight year.  They crossed in 9 minutes, 32 seconds, followed by Sea Isle City in 9:40 and Wildwood Crest in 9:48.

"Being defending champs, there was a little bit of pressure," Nagle said. "We saw some other crews earlier this summer and they were talking (trash).  But it was all in fun.  It feels good to win this again."

Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg
Photo courtesy of Dave Weinberg

Their effort along with a victory from singles rower Ryan Finnegan, also helped Avalon repeat as team champions.  Both Avalon and Sea Isle finished with 22 points. Avalon won the tiebreaker with a 4-3 edge in head-to-head competition in the seven events. Ocean City was third with 20 points, while host Wildwood Crest edged Cape May for fourth on a tiebreaker after both scored 13.  Zeb Hinker led Cape May with a victory in the open paddleboard race.

Races were held in front of a large, rowdy crowd.  Spectators filled the beach at Rambler Road to root for their favorite patrols.  The familiar chant of "Sea ... Isle, Sea.... Isle" could be heard throughout the evening, especially when Mary Kate Leonard won the women's box swim for the second straight year.

Leonard finished in 8:54, followed by Ocean City's Lexi Santer in 8:59 and Wildwood Crest's Adrienne Biello in 9:02.

"First, let me say it hurt really bad," said Leonard, 19, who swims for Boston College. "I took it out fast and got the lead early and then was able to hold on. That run up the beach (to finish the swim) was even harder, though. None of us are runners."

Santer didn't have much time to recuperate.  Less than 10 minutes after the swim was complete, she was back in the ocean for the women's paddleboard race.  It didn't take long for her to get her second wind, however.  The 26-year-old occupational therapist rallied to win the paddleboard in 6:19, followed by Wildwood Crest's Maddie Priest in 6:24 and Avalon's Alyssa Sittineri in 6:30.

"I was pretty tired after the swim, so I was in last place at the start (of the paddleboard) and had to work my way up to the front," said Santer, who also competed in the five-person surf dash relay. "It was hectic, but they didn't have any women's events here up until a couple years ago, so I wanted to compete."

Santer's Ocean City teammate, Michael Giardino, used a similar strategy to win the open box swim.  Giardino, a 16-year-old rising senior at Vineland High School, was the last swimmer to enter the water but was the first one to exit. He had the most dominant victory of the night, winning by 26 seconds over runner-up Jack Christian of Sea Isle City. Defending champion Dolan Grisbaum of Avalon did not compete but is expected to return to racing later this summer.

"I slipped and fell (during the beach run) in the beginning, so I started dead last," Giardino said. "Once I got in the water, I felt pretty good."

As always, the most exciting event was the five-person surf dash.  Spectators lined up 10 deep on either side of the course to watch competitors sprint, porpoise dive, and swim to a chest-deep buoy, then returning to the beach to tag a teammate.

North Wildwood's Chase McCray, a 2023 Middle Township High School graduate, gave his team the lead in the third leg, Abby Melle maintained it, then anchor Hunter Bostwick clinched the victory, producing a raucous celebration with teammates Travis McCray and Logan Westerfer.

"We've been doing this stuff together since we were 10, 11 years old just for fun," said Bostwick, a 16-year-old from Washington Township. "It was great to do it again with this on the line. I trusted my teammates to get the lead and they trusted me to bring it home."

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