On Saturday, the Cal women’s gymnastics team traveled to Seattle, Washington, to compete in the Pac-12 Championships, determined to continue its trend of recent success by winning the program’s first ever conference title. The Bears, who were coming off a historic performance in which they set a new program record of 197.500, entered the meet with plenty of confidence.
Still, in the end, the Bears were unable to win it all, taking fourth place with a 196.725.
Cal didn’t return home completely empty-handed, however, as head coach Justin Howell was awarded the honor of being named Pac-12 Coach of the Year.
“It’s an incredible honor, but I believe it’s a team effort, and I wouldn’t win this award if it wasn’t for the great student-athletes and coaching staff that I get to work with,” Howell said.
Sophomore Toni-Ann Williams also didn’t walk away empty-handed, winning Cal’s first individual event championship since 2004. This honor came after a knockout floor performance in which she finished with a 9.925, taking Cal’s first conference floor title since 1997.
Utah, a team that had won the Pac-12 Championship for two straight years coming into the meet, was the odds-on favorite. But the Utes got into trouble early on, struggling right out of the gate on beam. Utah finished with a beam score of 48.775, giving life to the Bears, who had started the meet on the uneven bars.
Junior Jessica Howe led the Bears on bars with a 9.850, one of her best bars performances of the season. Sophomore Yuleen Sternberg and freshman Sofie Seilnacht followed closely behind, each finishing with a strong 9.80. It was performances such as this that allowed the Bears to finish on bars with a 49.000.
Cal moved onto beam for its second rotation, an event the Bears have significantly improved on as the season’s progressed. This trend only continued Saturday, as Cal was able to finish on beam with a strong 49.250, the fifth highest beam score in school history. Juniors Desiree Palomares and Emily Richardson had career-best performances, finishing with a 9.90.
The Bears then moved onto floor and vault for their third and fourth events, respectively. Williams gained the attention of the entire Pac-12 with her conference-best floor performance, but she wasn’t the only one. Junior Zoe Draghi also captivated the audience on floor, and the judges rewarded her with a 9.90. Cal finished on floor with a team score of 49.375, taking its all around team score to 147.625 on the way to its final event.
But Cal was unfortunately too far away from the Bruins to catch up, as UCLA had a commanding team score of 148.000 before performing on floor, their final event. Sophomore Arianna Robinson led Cal in the last event, finishing with a career-high vault score of 9.90. The Bruins never gave up the lead though, winning the conference title with a floor score of 49.250, bringing their final team score to 197.250.
The Bears proved Saturday that they could compete with the best teams in the conference. But as the postseason progresses, they’ll now need to prove that they can match up with the best teams in the nation.
“As coaches what we hope for is that we keep getting better week after week,” Howell said. “I feel like we’ve done that, and the best is yet to come.”
Alex Quintana covers women’s gymnastics. Contact him at [email protected]