Bears look to conclude season on high note at NCAAs

Michael Tao/File
Cal needs to finish in the top three of Thursday's NCAA qualifier to advance to Saturday's team championships.

Following its most disappointing performance of the year two weeks ago at the MPSF championships, the Cal men’s gymnastics team has spent its last days of practice before the NCAA championship regaining its confidence and becoming as healthy as possible.

“Since not doing as well as we were capable of (at MPSFs),” Cal coach Tim McNeill said, “we’ve been fixing things and simulating the days of back to back competition.”

Those simulations have been vital in restoring the proper attitude and poise. McNeill brought in a professional judge and had two consecutive practice competitions. Scores from both days were the highest of the year, ensuring the team that it is better than it performed at MPSFs, where the team placed third but had many flawed routines.

“Both of those meets were phenomenal,” said McNeill. “The guys are now aware of how good we can be if we have the competition that we are capable of having.

For McNeill’s team, it really does all come down to this. The No. 8 Bears head into this week’s NCAA Championship meet in Norman, Okla., after a season of ups and downs, well prepared for their chance to compete for a national championship.

The meet, which runs Thursday through Saturday, consists of the top 12 teams in the country, as well as individual invitees from teams that did not qualify. Thursday’s meet is a qualifier, followed by team championships on Friday and individual finals on Sunday.

The Bears will compete in the second session of qualifiers on Thursday against top teams like  No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 Illinois and No. 5 Minnesota. To qualify for Saturday’s team finals, the Bears must finish in the top three in their session. Despite having three teams ranked in front of his team, McNeill is confident that the Bears will be one of the six teams competing on Saturday.

“I expect us to advance easily enough to day two,” McNeill said, “but right now everyone’s focus needs to be on the first day. Then we’ll let everything loose on Friday.”

The team will benefit from the deepest lineup that it has had all year. Assuming that the team qualifies on Thursday, senior Glen Ishino will compete in all six events on Friday, the first time all year that the All-American has been healthy enough to compete all-around. Captain Donothan Bailey and fellow junior Dennis Mannhart will also compete all-around.

“Any of those three could contend for the (individual) all-around championship,” McNeill said.

McNeill recognized that several other Cal gymnasts are capable of winning their own national titles in individual events. For now, however, the focus is on competing as a team for the NCAA championship.

“We just have to have a good meet,” McNeill said. “We’ll let the guys’ routines, all of the hours of work they’ve put in, do the work. I’m sure that if we can do that, we’ll end up on the podium, and maybe just win the whole thing.”