Cal W. Gymnastics posts best-ever Pac-12 Championship score & heads to West Virginia Regional as 5th overall seed

The Pac-12 top-seed Golden Bears were edged by Utah for the conference title on Saturday night

Sporting brand new leotards, the California Golden Bears (7-1) entered Maverik Center in West Valley, Utah on Saturday night in a historically unusual spot - as the top-seed in a Pac-12 conference that had always been a gymnastics powerhouse even before adding Utah.

Unfortunately, the Cal Bears were very good but not as great as they had been in their previous meets. The Golden Bears set a program record for the Pac-12 Championship score with 197.375, but that was still a fraction of a point short of Utah Red Rocks’ season-high score of 197.725.

For this historic season that included the memorable meet that produced the program-best team score and an NCAA-tying team beam score, Cal’s co-head coach pair of Justin Howell and Elisabeth Crandall-Howell very deservedly earned the Pac-12 Coaches of the Year honor. The pair had turned a program that was on the chopping block just a decade ago into a national powerhouse, through a steady process that really followed the “One Day Better” motto that was installed on Day 1 of the Howell regime.

The Pac-12 Championships had Cal in the stacked session 2 against Utah, UCLA, and Arizona State. ASU was making their debut in the Pac-12 Championship evening session. This feat was a big milestone for the Cal Bears back in 2014 when they finished a then program-best 3rd in the conference.

The Golden Bears started on the vault where they were solid but not quite flawless.

The top score here was the 9.90 earned by sophomore Naveah DeSouza.

To my untrained eyes and biased heart, I thought the Cal Bears were squeezed by the judges in their scores, particularly with Utah and UCLA earning some 9.925/9.950 in their routines. This was particularly true after a fantastic Cal 2nd rotation on the uneven bars where I thought the Cal Bears should have had a couple of 9.925 or even 9.950 rather than four 9.900 scores.

Freshman Andi Li was one of four Bears to get the 9.90 scores. She was also able to get her older sister Anna, who was a star gymnast at UCLA to wear Cal gear at this meet in the stands. Li’s parents were both Olympians for China in 1984.

In team score, the Cal Bears sit at 3rd place at the midway point of the meet. Feeling the pressure to make a big move, the Bears wobbled but mostly did not fall on the balance beam.

Andi Li was the top Bear in this event, demonstrating how bright the future should be for the program.

Just like in the meet against Cal, UCLA had three great rotations but then fell apart in the fourth. Utah also started to feel the pressure on the vault, especially after a missed landing; they needed the 9.8 in their final vault to drop a 9.3 score that could have given the Bears their first Pac-12 title.

The Cal Bears finished the meet strong on the floor, finally breaking the 9.90 mark, as well as being able to cover an out-of-bound from Andi Li. Li’s miscue likely had cost her the Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year honor that went to UCLA’s Chae Campbell.

Senior Kyana George earned a share of the Pac-12 floor title with her routine as the Bears’ floor anchor.

Junior Milan Clausi also earned a 9.925 for her floor routine. Clausi had long converted her mother, US Olympian and former Utah Red Rocks star Missy Marlowe, to Cal fandom.

The 197.375 score was the 4th best of this tremendous season. This score allowed the Bears to improve their National Qualifying Score even higher. There is no doubt that the Cal Bears will have a high seed in an NCAA Regional but just where and against who.

You can check out Pac-12 Network’s recap of session 2 below.

The Cal Bears will aim to be one of two teams to make it out of the Morgantown, West Virginia Regional to make the NCAA “Elite Eight”. The 36-team NCAA Women’s Gymnastics field was announced on Monday afternoon with the four regionals being Athens, Georgia (with top-overall seed Florida), Salt Lake City (with host Utah as the 6th seed and LSU as the 3rd seed), and Tuscaloosa, Alabama (with second-overall seed Oklahoma).

The Regionals will take place April 1st to 3rd. The top 8 teams in the country will then compete at the NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships on April 16-17, 2021 from Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, TX. The top four teams from the semifinals will advance to the recently reduced championship “Final Four” (down from the old “Super Six” format).

The full list of teams at the Morgantown Regional is below. Cal will first need to be the top two teams amongst 12th-seed BYU, Ohio State, and Towson to earn a spot in the Regional Final. The always dangerous 13th-seed UCLA and 4th-seed Michigan will likely be the opponents for the Golden Bears in the regional final on April 3rd, barring surprises.

Back in 2016, the Golden Bears advanced to the NCAA Championships as a team by finishing 2nd at the Alabama Regional (this was when there were 12 teams that made the NCAA Championships instead of just 8). “Calympian” Toni-Ann Williams actually had to miss the NCAA Championships to earn her spot at the 2016 Rio Olympics, becoming the first female gymnast to represent Jamaica, since the qualifier was held on the same weekend. Nonetheless, the Cal Bears just missed out on a “Super Six” spot by being the 7th best team in the country that year.

Obviously, there is a ton more expectation for this 2021 squad given all that has already been done this year. Can these physically nimble but mentally sturdy Golden Bears rise up to the challenge? We will find out in two weeks.

BONUS: I found the full video for that historic Cal vs. UCLA meet online. Cal fans should watch that historic Uneven Bars rotation, starting at the 29:44 mark.