Overcoming pre-meet drama, Cal ends historic season at NCAA semi; Bordas becomes 1st Cal W. Gymnastics national champion

Cal Bears only got to compete after the NCAA pulled the team off mid-warm-up while pondering a medically DQ

After having their last season unexpectedly cut short and enduring the long summer and fall of uncertainty about the 2020-21 season, Cal Women’s Gymnastics team has adapted the mantra of “gratitude”. Rather than focusing on the scores or the rising expectations after the team started to earn their best rankings in program history, they will simply embrace the opportunity to compete.

Adding yet another craziness to this very special season, No.5 Cal Golden Bears nearly did not get to compete on the biggest stage of the season - the NCAA Championships. Everything appeared normal as the Bears arrived at Fort Worth, Texas on Thursday and went through practice. Yet while the Bears were out on the floor during the warm-ups just before the meet, the NCAA sent the entire Cal travel party to quarantine just a mere 70 minutes before the scheduled start of session 1. The Cal Bears were on the verge of being medically DQ’ed before their biggest meet due to COVID protocols.1

Fortunately, everything was sorted out in just under 30 minutes2. With a lot of communications behind-the-scene between the team and health officials in both California and Texas, the Bears were cleared to compete. Rather than the normal hours plus to warm up, they got just 20 minutes to get ready.

For a lesser team, these kinds of emotional roller coasters that were completely outside the controls of the student-athletes on the brink of the most anticipated moment of their collegiate career/life may break their psyches. But for our mentally sturdy Golden Bears, they put on a great fight and nearly claimed one of the precious two berths out of semifinal 1 to Saturday’s “Final Four”.

"We do so many interesting things in practice so that they're always prepared for anything to happen,” co-head coach Justin Howell said. “If there was a team that can handle that kind of stop-and-start adversity that we had today, our Bears were the team that could do it."

A month ago, Cal women’s swimming won an NCAA relay championship right after the meet was delayed due to a tornado warning in the Greensboro, NC area. The team spoke afterward about doing practices for unusual situations. Cal head coaches train their student-athletes to be able to handle the unexpected, because that’s a skill that applies to more than sports.

This was only the second NCAA Women’s Gymnastics championship under the new format of a “Final Four” rather than a “Super Six”. The NCAA Championship field was also reduced from the top 12 to just the top 8. Cal Golden Bears just continued their “one day better” mantra and made that quantum leap3 from a top-10 team to a top-6 team in 2021, displacing gymnastics powerhouse UCLA along the way.

On their 4th ever trip to the NCAA Championships, and the third one in recent years with the program under the guidance of co-head coaches Justin Howell and Elisabeth Crandall-Howell, the Golden Bears believed that they can make the final session of the collegiate gymnastics season. Battling No.1 Florida, No.4 Michigan, and No.8 Minnesota for two spots, Cal just needed to replicate their season-best to have a great shot at reaching the final session for the first time in program history.

Alas, the Cal Bears fell just 0.075 short of the rather inconsistent Florida Gators squad. The historic season had come to an end a day too early. Co-head coach Justin Howell said that they told the team that they were “incredibly proud” of how the Cal Bears overcame the crazy morning, on top of all of the adversity this season. “What they did today outweigh [competing in the NCAA championship final] tomorrow.”


The final team score from NCAA Championship semifinal 1:

  1. No.4 Michigan 197.8625

  2. No.1 Florida 197.4375

  3. No.5 California 197.3625

  4. No.8 Minnesota 197.1875

The scores across the board were down slightly for all of the team. The NCAA used 6 judges for this meet rather than the standard 4. More eyes meant more deductions in this traditional 10-point scoring. Most gymnasts have routines that have a starting value of 10 (or 9.95) if they do all of the required skills perfectly. The judges merely look for reasons to deduct points, on the tiniest things. There are also no bonus points for doing some extraordinary skills. For example, Cal senior Kyana George has a balance beam skilled named after her since she was the first to ever perform a triple Wolf turn. In NCAA competition, George earns the full points by just doing a double Wolf turn (though she had occasionally done that extra turn in college competitions).

Following all the pre-meet drama, the Cal Bears performed unfazed in their first rotation of floor exercise. Cal hit on all of their routines and had a strong start to the meet. While it was the same gymnasts as the last several meets, the order of them was reshuffled somewhat. Each Cal Bear was able to improve upon the score of the previous teammate, culminating on a 9.925 from sophomore Neveah DeSouza. DeSouza earned 2nd Team All-American honor for her floor routine.

Coincidentally, Florida struggled on balance beam in rotation one. The Florida anchor just had a disastrous final routine that they had to count an earlier 9.7 score. The Howells told me that the team does not scoreboard watch during the meet. From my own experience at the NCAA Regional two weeks ago, there were also too many things happening simultaneously that I believe them. Cal Bears probably did realize that they were in 2nd place at the end of the first rotation, though.

On vault for the second rotation, Cal Bears were unable to match the season-high scores set on their last meet. The Bears did hit on all six vaults, although Milan Clausi arguably showed more athleticism in saving her landing after an awkward take-off than if she had a clean vault, but the judges found a lot of reasons to deduct points.

The top Bear on the vault was again sophomore Neveah DeSouza. Her score of 9.8875 earned her first team All-American honor for vault.

Michigan posted a strong floor rotation (49.65) to take full control of this meet. Florida, on the other hand, nearly lost their chance to advance on rotation 2 on balance beam. The Gator lead-off gymnast only scored a 9.0, but the rest of the rotation under heavy pressure all hit on their routines and earned 9.8+ including a pair of 9.9+. The Gators were able to drop that 9.0 score and ended up with a slim 0.050 lead on the Bears at the halfway point of this meet.

Rotation 3 had the Cal Bears, the No.1 ranked team on bars, at uneven bars while the Florida Gators, the No.1 ranked team on floor, was on floor. Michigan, the No.1 vault team in the country, was on vault for this rotation.

I was a little bit surprised that only two Cal Bears managed to earn 9.9+ score on this rotation, but even I could see how the Bears were not quite as sharp in the first half of the rotation on Friday as they had been for the bulk of the year.

Maya Bordas scored a 9.950 to lead the team and there are a lot more on her performance below. She was the surprise top Bears on Bars at the biggest stage. Alma Kuc also had a solid 9.9125 routine that earned her first team All-American honor on bars. Freshman Andi Li earned a 2nd team All-American honor for her 9.850. The disappointment here was clearly Emi Watterson’s mistake as the anchor. Watterson had to stop her routine after losing all of her momentum when she transitioned between the bars. Her quest to replicate her perfect 10 earlier this year turned into a score that the Bears will drop.

The Florida Gators put up a strong 49.5875 on floor during rotation 3 to take control of that second place. Of course, we know that the Bear will not quit. The Cal Bears will fight to extend their season until the very end.

On the always treacherous balance beam to close the meet, the Cal Bears did quite well. The Bears had their best rotation of the day on the beam with a team score of 49.4375 and three Cal Bears earning All-American honor (top 8 in the session).

After Milan Clausi steadily earned her 9.8+ score as the leadoff, Neveah DeSouza followed with a timely 9.9125, good for 2nd team All-American honor.

Kyana George had a strong 9.925 routine to give the Cal Bears some late hope. George earned 1st team All-American honor for this routine.

Florida on vault had some issues to only score 49.2250 there, leaving a chance for the Cal to make a movie-script-like comeback. With vault finishing early, the Cal Bears knew the score that they had to beat to advance.

While Bordas was not able to have a strong 9.9+ score, the Cal Bears technically still could advance to the Championship final on Saturday with one routine left. Emi Watterson would just need to score a perfect 10.

The Howells admits that neither Watterson nor the team knew that was what was necessary. Instead, Elisabeth Crandall-Howell was just proud of how Emi Watterson was able to “live in the moment” and had a strong beam routine to finish the season (and to put a bit of scare into the Gators before that final score was posted). Watterson was awarded a 9.9125 score for her beam routine. That’s good for second team All-American honor for the senior from Australia.

The 2021 Cal Women’s Gymnastics season ended on a high note.

For the all-around Neveah DeSouza scored 39.5250 which earned her another 2nd team All-American honor. In her first NCAA Championship, DeSouza shined with 4 All-American honors at this meet. The performances of her and freshman Andi Li (who scored 39.4625 as the second Cal all-arounder) foreshadow a bright future for the program, regardless of how many of the current class of seniors may return next season from the NCAA granting an extra year of eligibility to all winter student-athlete this year.

Covering Cal women’s gymnastics has been one of my clear highlights of this condensed and packed Cal Athletics season/school year. This Cal team just always showed great attitudes and put on fun, graceful performances.


Maya Bordas becomes the first Cal NCAA Champion in women’s gymnastics

Arguably, the most historic moments before nationals from this season for Cal Women’s Gymnastics was that NCAA tying uneven bars routine from the UCLA meet. The Golden Bears became the top-ranked team in this apparatus from that point on.

If you told me that Cal would have a national champion on the uneven bars, I would not be surprised. However, I probably would have guessed that winner to be Emi Watterson (who scored a perfect 10 while wearing a mask), or Alma Kuc (9.9125 in this meet), or Neveah DeSouza (the best all-around gymnast on the team). Nina Schank and Andi Li had also regularly scored 9.9+ this season.

The first Cal national champion in women’s gymnastics will forever be Maya Bordas, a junior from Austin, Texas competing in her home state. Bordas scored a career-best 9.95 score on the uneven bars. At just their last meet (the Morgantown Regional Final), Bordas had an issue with her transition that put tremendous pressure on the routines of Kuc and Watterson who followed to drop that 9.4 score. On this Friday afternoon, Bordas was nearly perfect.

Co-head coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell said that Maya Bordas has “been working really hard on body posture on her landing of her dismount”. Bordas had a perfect landing that she held for a dramatic pause before saluting the judges.

Bordas’ 9.95 score was the highest uneven bars score in the first semifinal. That score was not surpassed through the second semifinal where Utah’s Maile O’Keefe, who garnered the Pac-12 Gymnast of the Year honor at the Pac-12 Championships, was only able to match it to be the co-national champion. Utah and Oklahoma earned the two team berths available from semifinal 2.

You can watch Maya Bordas’ routine from three different angles.

The 1st is the main ESPN2 broadcast.

The second angle is from the ESPN app’s dedicated camera for this apparatus.

Here is a 3rd different angle from the floor.

Congratulations to Maya Bordas for her great routine! She became the first non-swimmer to earn a national championship this school year. Cal fans, be sure to give Maya a great ovation when she’s honored for this feat at a Cal Football game this fall.

With how the Cal Women’s Gymnastics program continuing to live out that “one day better” motto both in-and-out of the gymnasium, I am sure that Cal will be earning more national championships in women’s gymnastics in the near future.

GO BEARS!

1

A good educated guess here is that this may have been related to the cases within the Cal Softball program that canceled their weekend series down at Stanford this weekend.

2

This is obviously a bad look for the NCAA. Why were the Bears even allowed to be out there on the main floor with other teams socially distant but not always masked if there were legit COVID concerns?

3

As a physicist, I feel the need to point out that “quantum leaps” are discrete but tiny changes of energy in real life. However, this is also a rather fitting term here because to achieve that move up to be a collegiate gymnastics elite, small incremental improvements (like these scores) are not enough until you gather enough of them. When those small improvements add up to exceed a certain threshold, you get a quantum leap into an excited state. So it is apt to say that Cal had a quantum leap in improving their average team scores from 197.1 to 197.6 this season.