Cal women’s gymnastics finishes third overall at Pac-12 championships

The memorable evening for the Cal women’s gymnastics team started long before Crystal Paz nailed her floor exercise and clinched a record-setting conference finish at Haas Pavilion.

Coming into the Pac-12 women’s gymnastics championships Saturday, the Bears had never finished higher than fifth in the final conference competition since it began in 1987. Last season, Cal was seventh out of eight teams.

When Paz’s score of 9.85 out of 10 flashed on the electronic scoreboard after her exercise, a cheer erupted at the Bears’ bench and in the stands behind it. Her performance gave her team a 196.550 total, which was good for third overall.

Individually, Cal gymnasts also secured honors. Senior Alicia Asturias finished tied for second in the all-around competition, with a collegiate best score of 39.425, and Jessica Howe and Serena Leong tied for second in the championships with their results on the balance beam.

It was the Bears’ performance in the beam event Saturday that made the difference.

About an hour before Paz’s clincher, Asturias stepped to the beam. She had struggled in recent weeks with her routine, according to her head coach, Justin Howell, but now, Asturias had the opportunity to continue Cal’s strong start.

When her time on the beam was over, her score was 9.800.

“I just took that opportunity to start my team off in a very normal way,” Asturias said. “We did what we do every single day in practice and that is hit amazing beam routines.”

What followed turned out to be the program’s second-highest beam total in its history. Desiree Palomares’ score of 9.850 was a new career best, while Leong and Howe both received 9.900s, which tied their collegiate highs. The team finished with a score of 49.275.

Howell called the balance beam a “make-or-break event” and said he got “goosebumps” after Howe’s performance. The Bears had one more exercise and were on pace to finish in an unprecedented position.

The championships were split into two sessions. No. 5 Utah, No. 7 UCLA, No. 10 Stanford and No. 11 Oregon State, the top four seeds in the conference, completed their routines in the afternoon.

That left No. 19 Cal, No. 21 Arizona, No. 22 Arizona State and Washington to not only face off against each other but also to try and break into the top four overall.

Heading into the final event, the Bears needed a score of 49.025 on the floor exercise to tie UCLA for third.

“I knew that if we just did floor the way that we are capable of, we were going to be right there,” Howell said.

A .1 point deduction for stepping out of bounds by Zoe Draghi to start the routine and a fall by Leong on the team’s second-to-last attempt left it up to Paz to make program history. Howe, Asturias and Charlie Owens had all scored 9.850 and above, putting Cal in position to finish in the top three, but it needed one last strong routine to seal it.

“To come from the program being dropped my freshman year to finishing like this, you cannot describe it with words,” Asturias said, who was named the conference’s scholar-athlete of the year. “When Crystal finished her floor routine, I started blubbering like a baby. It was one of the best moments of my life.”

Contact Stephen Hobbs at [email protected].