Season preview: Can the 2020 Bears bring back their game?

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The year was 1998. “Saving Private Ryan,” “There’s Something About Mary” and “Mulan” were debuting in theaters all across the country. Microsoft released a then state-of-the-art operating system — Windows 98. And Michael Jordan had just wrapped up his career as a Chicago Bull with a game-winning jump shot against the Utah Jazz. It was a different time. 

It was also the last time Cal took home a national title, with coach Barry Weiner leading the men’s gymnastics team to its second consecutive championship, edging out Iowa 231.200 to 229.675. The Bears were not just contenders, they were by far and away the best team in the nation. But today, the blue and gold are not the dominators of old.

The Bears have disappointed. Cal has struggled to get over the hurdle of national qualification, missing out on the championship for four straight years. They only finished first at one meet last season, and routinely scored below 400.000 throughout their 2019 campaign

Even the limited success the Bears did see, such as qualifying two gymnasts, Aaron Mah and Darren Wong, to the 2019 NCAA All-Around Finals, is tempered by the fact that Mah graduated, leaving only Wong to return to the team in 2020.  Mah is coaching the team on a volunteer basis this season, however.

That’s not to say that Cal’s 2020 roster is poor. They rank No. 11 in the preseason coaching poll, had a decent showing on vault last season, are returning five seniors and have young talent that could very well be the spark that lights the fire of revival. There is reason to be hopeful, but it must be tempered with reasonable expectations for growth.

Cal will look to improve on its pommel horse scores, which were the second lowest among teams in the Bears’ final two meets last season. Will Lavanakul, a freshman who was a four-time pommel horse champion in high school, will be the centerpiece for the team’s performance in that area. Lavanakul is not the only youthful boost to the blue and gold, as freshman Kyle Shuttle joins the team this year after a fantastic run in highschool that included national and regional championships, and a qualification to the 2019 Elite Team Cup.

Perhaps the most important young piece of Cal’s roster is Darren Wong. Wong, who took home MPSF Gymnast of the Week honors in March and January of last year and excelled at almost every event, will certainly be the focal point of the team’s efforts moving forward. The two-time NCAA rookie of the week had an excellent showing at the All-Around Finals last season, and may very well be the catalyst that brings Cal back into the spotlight.

Wong, one of only a few Bears with big-stage experience, will be joined in his leadership efforts by seniors Anton Vorona, Jonathan Wang, Harrison Plate, Asad Jooma and Kyte Crigger, who will end their Cal careers this season. 2020 marks the final time these five can attend the national championship, and with coach J.T. Okada at the helm, they may finally have the experience and tools necessary to make a legitimate run at qualification.

That run starts Saturday at the Cal Benefit Cup, which is the first of four Bay Area meets Cal will attend to start the season. The cup is an annual meet designed to raise funds for the Bear’s gymnastics program. The event will mostly feature young junior gymnasts, but collegiate play will kick off on Saturday night as Cal takes on it’s only opponent — No.1 ranked Stanford. 

The Cardinal defeated the Oklahoma Sooners in the national championship to secure Stanford’s’ first title since 2011 and will look to continue their run of dominance over their bay area rivals. While the Bears have potential, they’ll be facing the best squad in the nation, and will likely have to settle for the moral victories that come with a strong and improved performance rather than an actual win against a team that may not lose a meet all season. 

Perhaps, 20 years from now, we will remember this Cal roster the same way we remember the 1998 team. We might look back at this season as the one in which the Bears broke expectations and soared to new heights. We might look at coach J.T. Okada as the next Barry Weiner. But that’s not likely. Instead, we might want to view this season like Cal in the early ’90s. They’re setting the foundation of the future, and while they might not be a championship caliber team, the best has yet to come.

 

Michael Brust is an assistant sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @MikeB_DC.