In 2011, Street League is back with a few new faces (Luan Oliveira and Braydon Szafranski), format and scoring adjusted based on competitor feedback, and a fourth event added, which will serve as a winner-take-all championship round for the top 10 skaters after the first three stops. Every skater in the league is amazingly talented and any one of them is capable of pulling the tricks that won last year's events; but that doesn't mean they all have what it takes to win. It's one thing to put down a trick in the street and another thing entirely to pull the same move under the hot lights, before thousands of screaming fans and in front of cameras that -- unlike last year -- will be broadcasting all the action live on ESPN, ESPN2, and ESPN3. So who do you watch for? Here are my biased and opinionated predictions made one week out from the first 2011 Street League event.
The Heaviest Heavies:
Last year's three winners -- Nyjah Huston, Sean Malto and Shane O'Neill -- are heavily favored to win again this year; it would almost be a shock to not see them on the podium. Huston, especially, is on a tear this year. He recently reunited with Element skateboards and seems to want to show the world, again and again, that his career will go far beyond the flash-in-the-pan child phenoms he was compared to when he won Tampa Am at 10 (where are you now Billy Waldman, Anthony Oglesby and Devon Lamb?).
Add to that top tier two-time Thrasher magazine Skater of the Year and three-time Maloof Money Cup winner, Chris Cole, as well as Nike SB wunderkind Paul Rodriguez, Zoo York's Chaz Ortiz and Oliveira (the only skater to ever win Tampa Am two years in a row). The smart money is on all these guys.
Not So Dark Horses:
One tier below the most obvious heavy-hitters are the skaters who aren't always contest favorites, but have the distinct ability to turn it up on any given day. Topping this heap is Peter Ramondetta. Ramondetta has consistently made the finals in the majority of pro contests he's entered. Get a look at Ramondetta's most recent video segment, in "Since Day One" for Real skateboards, and you'll see he's got technical ability to spare beyond his burly approach. Along with Ramondetta, I'll add the blizzard of technicality in Torey Pudwill, the caveman grace of Tommy Sandoval and the massive backside flips of Ryan Sheckler to this second tier of skaters likely to take home some Street League money.
Pudwill might just be the most talented and innovative skater competing in Street League (have you seen his Battle Commander?). However, he doesn't always keep his composure, or his board under his feet, when the heat is on.
Sandoval, like Ramondetta, can pull out all the stops when the mood strikes but doesn't seem to have the fierce competitive nature that some of those named in the top tier have. For a guy with "Die Trying" tattooed on his chest, Sandoval can be pretty laid back in contest settings.
Sheckler goes bigger than most and has a bag of great tricks on lock. Last year he wasn't quite technical enough to take a win in Street League, but event founder Rob Dyrdek made tweaks to the scoring that should favor the bold, which could play to Sheckler's strengths.
Beneath the obvious picks and those nipping at their heels, there's a tier of Street League skaters that, while perfectly capable of a win, would be more of a pleasant surprise if they did come through in the clutch. This group of longer shots includes Eric Koston, David Gonzalez, Dylan Rieder, Nick Dompierre and Billy Marks. All five are tremendous athletes who deserve their top-level pro status. All have pro boards and signature product as the perks of being at the top of their game. But that doesn't mean they're going to win a stop of 2011's Street League.
Koston has two X Games gold medals and has won Tampa Pro twice. But he's an established skateboarding icon and in recent years hasn't seemed to take contest appearances that seriously. When Koston does decide to focus, as he did during the semifinals of this year's Tampa Pro, he's better than nearly everyone.
Similarly, Billy Marks usually makes the finals but he's more of a "best trick" guy than a "best overall in a competitive setting" guy.
Gonzalez, Rieder and Dompierre have all established their credibility for gnarliness through video parts and photos but their contest performances reflect that their hearts and minds are more comfortable taking care of business in the streets.
I'd Be Shocked:
I'd be shocked if any of the following skaters won a stop of this year's Street League series: Marc Johnson, PJ Ladd, Terry Kennedy, Mike Mo Capaldi, Brandon Biebel, Mark Appleyard, Mike Taylor, Terry Kennedy and Braydon Szafranski. Now don't misinterpret that. This last group is comprised of amazing skaters. Ladd, Johnson and Capaldi combined have more technical ability and innovation than an entire continent's worth of aspiring pros.
Brandon Biebel is exceedingly high in my personal ranking of best manual skaters of all time. Appleyard's got better style than nearly everyone in Street League. Meanwhile Kennedy, Taylor and Szafranski are big men with power who handle large rails and stairs with ease. More than that, they're always smiling! They understand how great being a pro skater actually is. If any one of these skaters win a stop of Street League this year I'll be shocked, but I'll also be ecstatic. If that happens, then skaters who are known and loved for what they do outside a contest setting will have grabbed 150K straight out of the hands of someone we've all likely seen on the podium plenty of times before.