The hometown hero edged out the legend to reach the final.
And once there, all that stood between him and a repeat win in surfing's largest and highest-paying event was the No. 1-ranked surfer in the world.
Friends, family and fans crowded the water's edge to wish their hero good luck as he trotted out to face the world's finest.
And when Huntington Beach native Brett Simpson returned to that water's edge, having defeated Jordy Smith to win the U.S. Open of Surfing on Sunday in his backyard, those friends, family and fans lifted him onto their shoulders and cheered — just as they did last year.
"You'll never see this again," said Simpson's father, Bill, a former NFL safety who spent five seasons with the Los Angeles Rams.
Simpson's heat total of 13.97 out of 20 topped Smith's score of 8.33, making him the first back-to-back Open winner since Mark Occhilupo in 1985-86.
"To win out here two years in a row is unimaginable," Simpson said.
Simpson's win was tactical. The ocean offered few waves, and Smith and Simpson spent the first 15 minutes of the 35-minute heat waiting for something to ride.
As the heat wore on, decent waves emerged and Simpson chose wisely, putting up single-wave scores of 7.77 and 6.20 out of 10. With time dwindling, Smith needed a near-perfect score — a 9.64 — to come back.
The ocean offered him nothing. It sat still. He did too.
"There were no more waves coming in for me," Smith said.
The horn sounded, and the $100,000 first-place prize was Simpson's, again.
"You don't really want to win like that, but a win's a win," Simpson said.
His path to the title wasn't easy. In the semifinals, Simpson faced nine-time world champion Kelly Slater.
In a back-and-forth, nail-biting match, Simpson beat Slater, 13.37-13.33. That win, too, was tactical, though Smith said he got lucky.
"He was smart, not lucky," Slater said.
That's pretty much how Simpson summed up the nine-day competition after beating Smith.
"Huntington consists of being good and a bit lucky," he said. "I definitely had a little bit of both."
It also helped that he was at home, able to see friends and family, to sleep in his own bed and surf on the waves he grew up on. All that made him comfortable, an advantage not afforded to other surfers.
"It's a circus, and a lot of guys that come into town have to be in it all day," Simpson said of the Open, "and I could kind of escape away and relax at home."
Smith had a similar advantage last month when he won a World Tour event in his native South Africa.
"Three weeks ago, I probably had what Brett's going through right now," Smith said as he sat beside Simpson during a news conference.
Simpson, 25, defeated two-time world champion Mick Fanning to win the open last year, but he said with the lineup he faced this year and the intrinsic pressure to do well — especially in his hometown — after winning last year made Saturday's victory more rewarding.
And with Simpson tied for 24th place on the World Tour, the ratings points he receives from this Open win could help him stay on tour.
But Simpson didn't appear anxious about winning Saturday, as if he needed it. His father said that attitude derived from Simpson's recent top-10 finish at a World Tour event.
"That really gave him a surge of confidence, and he came back, saying, 'This is my home, I'm winning this thing,' " Bill Simpson said.
So he did. And later on his Twitter account, Simpson tweeted the customary line when an athlete wins the Super Bowl of his or her sport: "im going to disneyland!!"