Cal Women's Gymnastics advances to NCAA Championships
A 2nd place finish at the Morgantown Regional earns the Golden Bears one of precious eight spots at the National Championship in Fort Worth, TX on April 16-17
The Golden Bears are national championship bound!
With a second-place finish at the Morgantown Regional Final on Saturday night, California Women’s Gymnastics has earned a spot in the NCAA Championship, to be hosted by Fort Worth, Texas in two weeks, April 16th and 17th. The 5th overall seed Cal Bears joins the 4th overall seed Michigan as the two teams to advance from the Morgantown Regional.
For the more casual Cal fans who may recall the Bears also making the NCAA Championships in 2016 and 20181, this season would mark the first time that the Cal Bears have made the National Championship since that field was reduced from 12 teams to just 8 teams starting in the 2019 season. The NCAA wanted to make the Women’s Gymnastics National Championship be more elite, the Cal Bears have successfully raised their own level to match that, by embracing the “one day better” motto that was adopted over a decade ago.
This is a special accomplishment for this continually improving Cal program, particularly on the heel of the 2019 NCAA Regional, when the Cal Bears posted the then program-best team score of 197.675, but still fell way short of advancing out of the Athens Regional that year.
Co-head coach Justin Howell said, “We told them, this one is special, just considering the difficulty of this last year with the global pandemic that we've all been navigating. This one means a lot and we're just incredibly proud of our team.”
On Saturday night at the Morgantown Regional Final, the Cal Bears set a new second-best team score in program history with a 197.750, which is a slight improvement over their previous second-best record of 197.725 that was set just over 24 hours ago at the same venue in the Regional Semifinal.
NCAA Morgantown Regional Final scores:
Ohio State 195.625
Unlike the Regional semifinal, the Golden Bears faced far more pressure on Saturday, both with the better field that included Pac-12 rival UCLA in close pursuit until the final rotation and with some Bears needing to step up in clutch routines to allow the Cal Bears to drop some lower scores.
The Cal Bears started on the uneven bars, where they were the top-ranked team in the country with an NQS of 49.606 - an equivalent of five 9.925 scoring routines.
The Bears got three scores above 9.9 here to earn a bars team score of 49.425. While Maya Bordas was able to save a bad transition in her routine, her 9.450 could have been fatal if not dropped. Cal co-head coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell really credited her seniors Alma Kuc and Emi Watterson for their clutch routines to conclude this rotation. Watterson had a nearly flawless bars routine again that had her teammates screaming “10s” on the sideline. Unlike Friday when two judges gave her 10s, all four judges gave her 9.95.
If you are looking for how the Bears can improve on their team score at the National Semifinal? That would likely come from the uneven bars. When the Cal Bears obliterated the program-best team score earlier this year with a 198.050, they tied the NCAA record with a 49.825 on bars, capped by a 10.0. from Watterson. Subjectively, Crandall-Howell thought the Cal Bears did even better in their bars rotation on Friday than the 49.600 score that they earned. While the difference between 9.95/10 and 9.90/9.85 is razor-thin, the margin for error will become even smaller at the NCAA Semifinal and Final.
At the end of rotation one, Cal found themselves in a tie with UCLA, who also earned a 49.425 on floor exercise. Michigan overcame their first vaulter’s mistake (9.325) to take a lead with 49.525. Ohio State, the unseeded surprise of this Regional Final after their upset over BYU, was essentially already out of running with their 48.950 on beam where they had to count a couple of 9.7 scores.
Moving on to balance beam, Cal Bears responded with a solid 49.450 rotation. Maya Bordas recovered from her bars mistake with a great 9.925 here. Bordas’ beam score was needed after Kyana George, who typically scores a 9.9+ on the beam, fought through some minor balance checks to only get a 9.8. That score was dropped after the clutch scores from Bordas and Watterson because this gritty and deep Cal team was able to pick each other up.
At the end of the regular season, Cal had the 9th best beam rotation in the country with an NQS of 49.394. They were able to beat that with a 49.400 on Friday and again with a 49.450 on Saturday.
The Howells talked about how the team does not really pay attention to the scoreboard but just each other and their vocal fans at this meet. On Saturday night, the Cal fans were the clear loudest group in the WVU Coliseum. In the short breaks between rotations, there was some back-and-forth “Go Bears” between the team and their family/friends, who in this atypical pandemic season had to distant from the squad even outside of the meet. Crandall-Howell admitted to me how having fans in the stands for the first time this year at the Pac-12 Championships may have been partially responsible for Cal’s slowish start there, but the team is grateful for all the supports from the Cal family all season long in all forms.
Rotation 2 saw Michigan accomplish the bars routine that I had hoped out of Cal. The Wolverine scored a 49.725 to essentially clinched their spot in Fort Worth. Natalie Wojcik had a 9.975 bars routine that rivaled Watterson’s routine from Friday. UCLA, meanwhile only earned a 49.350 on vault, to allow Cal a 0.100 lead for the pivotal second spot at the halfway point of this meet.
On the floor, the Cal Bears again improved on their Regional Semifinal score. Kyana George redeemed for her beam performance with a great anchor floor exercise and a 9.950, tied for the best floor score of the night, to really put some scoreboard distance between the Bears and the Bruins. Milan Clausi and Andi Li also both had flawless routines to earn some big scores.
On floor, Cal’s NQS of 49.475 put them in a national 6th-place tie with UCLA and Oklahoma. Golden Bears’s 49.500 not only improved that average but was also 0.075 better than what the Bruins had done.
With a 0.225 lead on UCLA going to the final rotation, the Golden Bears were in control of their own destiny. Knowing how vault is always the first apparatus to be done in a rotation, the team could also put a lot of scoreboard pressure on UCLA on beam, where they have had troubles both at the dual meet at Cal and at the Pac-12 Championships.
The Bears hit on all 6 vaults, and for the first time that night, they can pay attention to the scoreboard. It did not take long for the Cal Bears to realize that the season will continue on to the National Championship. Ranked 9th on vault nationally, the Bears came through with a season-best 49.375 at the most important time.
In their first postseason competition (reminder that the postseason was canceled last year), freshman Andi Li and sophomore Nevaeh DeSouza earned praised from the Howells for delivering under pressure with their 9.900. DeSouza finished second with a 39.600 on the All-Around, just behind Michigan’s Sierra Brooks’ 39.750. Andi Li tied UCLA’s Chae Campbell with 39.575 for third place; Campbell had edged Li for the Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year award.
Another sophomore Natalie Sadighi led the Bears off with a clean 9.850 vault. For the second consecutive meet, Sadighi vault in a spot that was initially given to Maya Bordas. Justin Howell said that the last-minute lineup change was due to the great power and form showed by Sadighi during warm-ups; all of the Bears knew that a strength of this team in its depth and to always be ready to contribute. Too many great routines and all of the internal competitions are good problems to have, but one of the interesting offseason development to follow would be how many of the current seniors may come back due to the extra year of eligibility granted by the NCAA for this season’s winter athletes.
The Cal Bears were able to hold off the UCLA Bruins, despite the Bruins’ 197.275 being a season-high for them. For the first time since 2006, the NCAA Championships will not have the little-sister school from Westwood. I think it is way too early to attribute this to the relatively recent retirement of their long-time coach “Miss Val” from the Bruins program at the end of the 2019 season to pursue dance projects.
Looking nationally, all eight top seeds made the 2021 NCAA National Championships.
*I pulled the results below from the official NCAA page where they spelled our team name as “Cal-Berkley” 😤
Florida 197.700, Minnesota 197.425, Denver 197.275, NC State 196.150
Michigan 198.100, Cal 197.750, UCLA 197.275, Ohio State 195.625
Oklahoma 198.175, Alabama 197.575, Arkansas 196.700, Missouri 196.550
Salt Lake City Regional
Utah 197.925, LSU 197.730, Arizona State 197.600, Kentucky 197.600
Back in 2018 at the National Championship, Kyana George competed in the All-Around while Nina Schank and Emi Watterson competed on bars. Milan Clausi competed on vault as an individual qualifier in 2019 at the National Championships. The rest of the Cal squad will be experiencing the biggest meet in collegiate gymnastics for the first time.
My hope is for the Cal Bears to mark a new program-high score at the National Semifinal and setting another 198+ score may be enough to send them to the Championship meet. It turns out that Cal’s 197.750 would have been the 4th best score. The Bears will be the Semifinal session 1 with No.4 Michigan, No.1 Florida, and No.8 Minnesota. I do not think that we can assume that Cal will do better than top-seed Florida just because they outscore them by 0.050 at a different Regional Final scored by different judges.
The Cal gymnastics team had never made the final session when it was the “Super Six”. A berth in the “Final Four” will be a fitting way to conclude this remarkable and historic season.
Finally, covering this NCAA Regional in person allowed me to accomplish a couple of additional things other than enjoying the great gymnastics performed by this fun Cal team.
The picture turned out fuzzier than I would have preferred, but I got to unite my Oski bobblehead commemorating Cal’s 1959 Men’s Basketball Championship under the West Virginia 1959 National Runner-up banner. While WVU has had more recent success with their Final Four trip in 2010, both men’s basketball program has not returned to their respective pinnacles of that 1959 season.
Secondly, I got to (awkwardly) ask the Howells about how the great Cal Gymnastics program may help the struggling Cal Diving program, isn’t diving just gymnastics but stick a landing into the water?
Of course, Justin Howell can only speak for his team and gave a great answer about how Cal has successful people of all disciplines but how that also challenges everyone to be better. “Cal is a challenging place all the way around. The grit of being a Cal student is a huge factor. We are a very gritty team, we're able to handle a lot of adversity. I think it's the people that we have in the building. The whole philosophy of being at Cal and thinking of new ways of trying to solve problems, you can't help but shift your mindset. We're privileged to work with these students. It helps us as coaches to stay in that mindset as well.”
Nonetheless, I hope I had planted my seed. Only a few things would make me happier than seeing Cal Diving turning into a great program in the next 4-5 years due to an innovative synergy between Cal Aquatic and Gymnastics.
In some of my posts earlier this week, I have omitted mentions of the 2018 season. Until my post-meet chat with the Cal co-head coaches on Saturday night, I have forgotten that the entire team had qualified for the NCAA that year. I apologize for providing some bad Internet information. To save time (and to keep this blog writing hobby fun), I often rely on just my memory, which is typically quite good for all things that I had an emotional response to — AKA any Cal sports, but is not infallible.