Top-10 caliber Cal Olympic sports programs: W Water Polo, Gymnastics, Beach Volleyball

These programs are all capable of becoming the last 8 (or even 4) team standing in their sports

With each passing week, the Cal Athletics winter/spring 2021 schedule is just getting busier. Last weekend saw the start of the Women’s Water Polo season (more on them below) and the spring returns of both Men’s and Women’s Golf. This weekend will be the start of the season for Baseball (how much did the players improve from summer leagues?), Softball (1st year under new head coach and Cal alum Chelsea Spencer, but her prized pitching recruits won’t arrive until 2022), Men’s Soccer (San Jose Earthquakes draftee Tommy Williamson will play his final season before turning pro, but the Bears do lose a key starter in Taylor Davila to the pros), and Cross Country (who had their season opener on Friday) with Women’s Soccer (who will also be playing their 2021 home matches at Witter Rugby Field like the Cal Men) and Beach Volleyball (more on them below) starting next weekend. Unfortunately and somewhat frustratingly, none of the numerous home events were streamed this weekend.

It is also inevitable that COVID will impact some of the 400+ Cal Student-Athletes, Cal Softball is apparently short-handed this weekend but still will get a couple of games in (reading between the lines, maybe a couple of the pitchers are out).

Nevertheless, after last week’s 2021 updates on the Cal teams that are national championship favorites, the continuing series of quick previews/updates of Cal Olympic sports programs will cover the programs that are top-10 in the country. The more cynical Cal fans may notice that some of these sports have fewer schools participating nationally (particularly compared to the programs featured next week); they would not be wrong. However, I would emphasize that these programs have mostly been trending up, and they will hopefully be legit perennial national championship contenders (like the programs that I wrote about last week) before long.

Cal Programs that are Top 10 in the Country

No.8 Cal Women’s Water Polo

Cal Bears (3-0) won their season opener easily last Sunday. They swept the two matches yesterday (Saturday) against Fresno State and Fresno Pacific. The season will soon get much tougher against MPSF conference foes - the usual suspects of Stanford, USC, UCLA, as well as ASU, San Jose State, but not Indiana (who joined MPSF back in 2018).

Cases for optimism:

Key returnees from 2020 Olympic opt-outs and a talented US-grown freshmen class

In head coach Coralie Simmons’ 5th season at Cal, the Bears do get back 2 of the 3 international players who opted out of the 2020 season to train with their national teams in preparation for the since-postponed Tokyo Olympic games. Greek attacker Elli Protopapas and Dutch center Kitty Lynn Joustra are back with the Bears, while Canadian utility player Emma Wright will sit out another year. Joustra and Wright were Cal’s First and Second Team All-Americans in the 2019 season. Wright is also the program’s 9th leading goal scorer currently with 154 goals. Joustra did not play for the Dutch team in a qualifying tournament in January due to an injury.

Wright being away means scoring opportunities for plenty of the younger Cal Bears. Since USA Water Polo legend Coralie Simmons took over the program, Cal fans have been waiting for the program to finally tap into the rich USA Women’s Water Polo National Team player pool, the clear top international squad in the world (as is the case for most women’s team sports). Cal has had plenty of great international players in the past decade, but they had missed out on players such as the current best attacker in the world in Maggie Steffens to Stanford (where she won 3 national titles) despite Maggie’s father Carlos being a Cal Men’s Water Polo alum.

The 2021 Cal Women’s Water Polo roster has a deep and talented 9-women freshman class, including Maryn Dempsey. Dempsey, a mainstay on the USA Water Polo National Youth Team, started her collegiate career with a hat trick - matching the feat accomplished by Hungarian Calympian Dora Antal. Antal is, of course, the program’s all-time top scorer who also led Cal to a brief No.1 ranking in her senior season in 2018. Reagan Whitney, Maddie DeMattia, and Cassie Wallner have also had time with the USA National Team program.

The returning and new Bears will join a Cal attack that saw now-seniors Brigit Mulder (Dutch international but not currently on the Dutch National Team) and Claire Sonne taking a huge leap in the shortened 2020 season. Mulder earned First Team All-American honor when she led the conference with 59 points (38 goals) last year. Sonne contributed 25 goals in the abbreviated season.

In front of the cage, the Bears will have senior Cassidy Ball as the lead goalkeeper. Ball only got the chance to start in 2020 and performed relatively well in the shortened season. She led the conference in saves last year, a stat that both shows her ability to make saves but also the problematic Cal defense that had allowed way too many shots on goal last year.

Why the Bears probably won’t be the 2021 champion:

Historically, ALL of the NCAA Women’s Water Polo national championships have been won by Stanford (7), UCLA (7), and USC (5). The Bears’ best run came 10 years ago when they made the national championship match. Unlike the case for the men, the NCAA postseason field is large enough for all 4 of the Pac-12 California schools to make it every year. The Bears have been that clear 4th best team in the country, but programs like UC Irvine, Michigan, and ASU have improved in recent years.

Cal is entering the 2021 season as a somewhat overlooked team with a preseason ranking of 7th in the country. This ranking probably had too much to do with the Bears’ 11-7 record from the shortened 2020 season where they lost to a few of the non-Big 3 teams.

It is too early to say if the Cal defense has improved since last year and how the old and new players will gel as a team. Fortunately for the Bears, both for this year and the future, the 2021 women’s water polo schedule is longer than the delayed and shortened men’s water polo schedule. The hope is that this team can still grow and improve together despite all the COVID restrictions limiting opportunities for teams to bond outside matches.

Like last year, Olympic games preparation will impact the top teams more than the middle-tier teams. For example, the reigning Peter Cutino award winner Makenzie Fischer is again sitting out the season for Stanford to train with the US National Team. The Bears might just have the young talent to make things really interesting by the mid-May NCAA Championships, thanks to the extra parity this year due to the Olympics.

No.13 Cal Women’s Gymnastics

For Gymnastics, the current ranking is using the average team score. This is not really that good of an indicator this early with only a few scores. Cal Women’s Gymnastics was the preseason No.8 team in the WCGA Coaches poll.

Continuing to trend in the right direction is Cal Women’s Gymnastics, which has embodied that “one day better” mentality since Justin Howell and Elisabeth Crandall-Howell took over the program that was on the brink of being eliminated just over a decade ago.

Cases for optimism:

A perfect blend of experience and youth; the Howells are one of the best recruiters in the country

To start, Cal has two great all-arounders in senior Kyana George and the 2020 Pac-12 Freshman of the Year in Naveah DeSouza. Both gymnasts could be counted for 8 of the 24 rotation spots (where the top 5 out of 6 for each of the four apparatus would count for the team score). Then you add in a number of steady upperclassmen in junior Milan Clausi, junior Maya Bordas, and senior Nina Schank, this is the perfect lineup to give some low-pressure opportunities to blend in some of the freshman talents, new to collegiate gymnastics.

Bears also have a couple of injured vets like Talitha Jones (torn ACL last March) and Alma Kuc (elbow surgery last February) who may or may not factor into this season. The competition for rotation spots may be tight when everyone is healthy, but that’s a good problem to have.

Within the college gymnastics community, the work that the Howells have done has garnered them plenty of praises (as well as awards). While the Bears are not a traditional women’s gymnastics powerhouse like Utah or UCLA, they have become a threat for top talent in the last few recruiting cycles.

Women’s Gymnastics is rather weird in that the top athletes often peak at an age of 14-16 before they go to college. Those who chose to keep their amateur eligibility will look to get a college scholarship, although there are many athletes who may have already taken too much of a physical toll on their body from competitive gymnastics. College gymnastics also have a lower bar to that perfect 10 than international gymnastics. Being able to do a move that no one else in the world can do does not mean as much in college.

Cal got a decorated former US National Team member Gabby Perea in the most recent class While Perea has done some exhibition routines for the Bears this year, it is her fellow club team teammate from Illinois Andi Li that has already cracked the Cal lineup. Li also earned the most recent Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honor. Both girls may earn larger roles later in the season.

About a month in, the Bears are 3-0, including a convincing win over a top-10ish ASU in their last meet, with steady improvement each week. Several Bears, particularly George and Clausi, even competed in several events while wearing masks to get some positive Twitter responses from fans.

The current average team score of 196.308 is good for 13th best in the country while their high of 197.100 is good for 9th best. Although the Bears have a very high rate of hitting their routines so far, they have the potential to score more points just based on the current lineups and programs by minimizing deductions.

The Bears will compete on the road for their next three meets (at Oregon State on Sunday, at Utah, at Stanford) before hosting UCLA and UW to close the regular season. Pac-12 Championship is on March 20th and the NCAA Regional will start on April 3rd.

Why the Bears probably won’t be the 2021 champion:

Due to the loss of several programs nationally, the NCAA recently cut the championship final field from 6 to 4, just when the Bears start to challenge for that top 6 spot. The Bears nearly made their first championship final as a team in 2018 (they actually had the team score to do so but were placed in the tougher field of the two NCAA Semifinals) in the last year of the old format.

Comparing the team score, there is still a clear gap between Cal and the national title contenders (Florida, Oklahoma, LSU, Utah). This Cal team can potentially average 197.0+ over the second half of the season but the championship has historically required a team to score 198+ points. It is exponentially tougher to increase that team score as one gets closer to the theoretical perfect score of 200. Even with zero deductions, it is not clear that Cal has the starting values that can reach 198 (which would mean that all 20 scoring routines average a score of 9.9).

Nonetheless, the Bears scored 197.1 at their latest meet where there was clearly still room for improvement. I would expect the program to set yet another program record-high team score in 2021 (197.675 was set at the 2019 NCAA Regional when they needed 198.1 to advance), and that’s more than enough reasons to pay attention to this fun team.

No.10 Cal Men’s Gymnastics

Cal Men’s Gymnastics has won the NCAA championship 4-time in its history, but the latest one came in 1998. Also saved from the chopping block in 2010, Cal men’s gymnastics has basically defaulted its way into being a top-10 program nationally thanks to the waning national support for the sport at the collegiate level.

Cases for optimism:

Cal Men’s Gymnastics has no senior on the squad this year, just experienced juniors and young freshmen in a 50/50 mix. This mixture bodes well for the squad to get even better in 2022, in addition to a steady improvement in 2021.

Yu-Chen Lee, a junior from Taiwan, has been the top performer for the Bears in their last few meets. Lee has been the top gymnast in the floor exercise in every meet this year and had the top mark on the Bears in 3 of the 6 events in the meet against Stanford last weekend. Lee earned the conference Gymnast of the Week honor a week earlier when he had the top mark in 5 of the 6 events in Cal’s win over Army.

For whatever reason, the top gymnast from a couple of years ago, Canadian junior Darren Wong has not competed yet this year for the Bears. Wong made the NCAA All-Around Finals in his freshman year. There is the potential for this Cal team to get a huge boost should the team gets Wong back.

Cases for concerns:

Cal is only top-10 because there are very few men’s gymnastics programs now; Bears are still ~30 points behind the best squad nationally

Because there are fewer men’s gymnastics programs in the country and how some of them are very far apart geographically, there have been several “virtual meet” this year with each team performing in their home gym. The Cal men have done this from the Golden Bear Rec center rather than Haas. When the Bears eventually have to compete in more unfamiliar gyms, one would hope that there is no drop in performance due to unfamiliar equipment.

So far on the year, the 3-1 Bears have averaged a score of 382 points with a high of 387.2 set on Wednesday. The best teams in the country like Oklahoma averages over 410 points. The men’s gymnastics scoring has a lot more room in the scoring of different skills than for the women. I don’t believe the Bears can score 410 points even if everyone had a perfect routine. Nonetheless, even in the past, each of Cal’s meets is really just a challenge against oneself (this was also how the Bears have had seasons in the past where they weekly get outperformed by a national championship-contending Stanford squad by 20+ points but still feel good about themselves). Cal Men’s Gymnastics has won the national championship before, but that feels like ancient history. It is tough to see the Bears challenging the top teams like Oklahoma and Stanford in the near future given how little resources this program is getting, but it’s not really the fault of head coach JT Okada and his team.

The MPSF Championship is in early April while the NCAA Championship will take place in mid-April from Minneapolis, MN.

No.9 Cal Beach Volleyball

Outside of the missed national championship opportunities from the Cal Aquatics programs, the next biggest what-if from the 2020 stoppage was just how good was that Cal Beach Volleyball team. In their last match, the Bears defeated then No.5 USC and had a 9-match winning streak. Bears graduated 3 seniors from that team who were halves of 3 different pairs out of the 5 that compete in each meet.

Cases for optimism:

Cal took major strides in the last few seasons, going 9-1 before COVID stoppage in 2020

Ranked 9th in the preseason, Cal Beach Volleyball does hope to keep its ascend up the national ranking.

While the Bears have had some successes before 2020, they earned their upsets by winning matches 3 through 5. That formula changed when Mima Mirkovic and Iya Lindahl became a real threat to beat anyone last year. Lindahl has since graduated but Mirkovic, no doubt helped by her growing success in the beach game both in college and over the summer, made the decision to opt-out of indoor volleyball to focus on beach volleyball this winter/spring.

The two returning pairs for the Bears are junior Jordan Polo and senior Caroline Schafer who played as the No.2 and senior Maddie Micheletti and sophomore Ainsley Radell at No.4. Cal will need to have new pairings for the other three, but may also opt to break these pairings up as well.

The options to pair with Mirkovic at No.1 include fellow senior Alexia Inman (who played at No.3), transfer Katie Smoot, or any of the 5 new freshmen but probably not Katarina Pantovic (at least for the first month) since she has filled Mirkovic’s all-rotation outside hitter spot on the indoor volleyball team. Cal did make several lineup changes between 2019 and 2020 and found increased success, so the new pairings should not hinder this team’s potential too much.

Without too much available information on who is available on each team, one might expect the reverse of Mima Mirkovic’s decision to impact some of the other squads, who may be losing their best players to the indoor game. There may be an increased opportunity for this Cal team to make a run at the top-5.

Cases for concerns:

Who will be the official new head coach?

Meagan (Schmitt) Owusu has decided to retire from coaching to concentrate on raising her triplet. Derek Olson, who ran the team last year while Owusu was on maternity leave, is only the “interim head coach”. Does his long-term future with the Cal program depend on how the team fare in 2021? I also don’t know how much Olson was involved with the recruiting. He does have a fine reputation as a strategist.

Given how Cal AD Jim Knowlton does allow many programs to just promote from within outside Softball last year (but that’s a much higher profile sport), I would consider Olson to be the favorite to retain the job. Cal Beach Volleyball has not existed for long enough for a past assistant to come back and push Olson back to the assistant role akin to what happened with Indoor Volleyball when former assistant head coach Sam Crosson came back but retained interim head coach Jennifer Dorr.

Bears look to make Stanford a Bear Territory

The program released its schedule on Friday and the team will face a tough test of 14 ranked opponents with 8 of them in the top-10.

While the season starts next weekend from the Clark Kerr Sand Courts, those two matches will be the Bears’ only home matches on the long season. Instead, the Bears will travel down to Stanford 5x (they do have a better facility while Cal is scheduled to improve their own Clark Kerr facility at some point, but faced some legal blockage from the homeowners nearby, who overestimates the number of people who will attend college beach volleyball matches) to participate in mini-tournaments.

The Pac-12 Championships will take place at the end of April from UCLA while the Bears will hope to make their first NCAA Championships in early May, taking place at the Alabama Gulf Shores.

On deck for next weekend, I will tackle some of the Cal programs that will contend for postseason spots in their respective NCAA championship field of 32-64 teams: Cal Women’s Soccer, Men’s Soccer, Women’s Tennis, Men’s Tennis, Men’s Golf, Women’s Golf, Softball, and Baseball. It’s a group that should produce several interesting future pros in their sports, even if no national championships.

Also be on the lookout for a new series of posts where I will recap only the Cal victories from the previous week. Especially in a special school year where the pandemic altering plenty of the norms, let’s just focus on the positives that are happening with Cal Athletics.