Resurgence wins Norcal Classic, leaves Cal women’s gymnastics with lesson

Rachael Garner/File

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There’s something to be said of making mistakes and bending under pressure. Cal women’s gymnastics did both in their opening event at the NorCal Classic and it showed. After a record-setting start to the season at the Collegiate Challenge a little more than a week ago, the blue and gold seemed to crash back down to Earth.

The Bears got off to what can only be called a slow start. Against local opponents No. 25 Stanford, San Jose State, Sacramento State and hosts UC Davis, an uncharacteristically poor performance in their floor routines — the blue and gold scored 49.025 in their prior meet but tallied only a 47.800 at the NorCal Classic — put Cal in a pinch.

Injury and illness decimated the Bears’ floor lineup. Short one gymnast, the team struggled and, unable to drop their lowest score or escape the pressure, put up its lowest event score of the season. Cal was in third after only one event, almost a full point behind rivals Stanford who led after a solid 48.775 on the uneven bars.

Their opening floor routine killed any chance the Bears had at improving on their 196.200 score from their opening meet and it sent them tumbling down the rankings, taking the team’s average from No. 5 to No.18.

There is plenty to be said about those mistakes. There is also plenty to be said about learning from those mistakes and refusing to give up. The blue and gold bent, but did not break.

“We kind of started this meet having to dig ourselves out of a pretty big hole,” said co-head coach Justin Howell. “So I was very, very impressed with them for how they responded to that situation.”

In the face of mounting pressure and their worst performance of the season, the Bears could have broken. Instead, they bounced back.

“Tonight we didn’t have a great floor rotation, you know? It was awful. But at that point there’s nothing to lose,” Howell said. “So we also got into that mindset: we got nothing to do but get better right now. So let’s enjoy the opopourntiy that we have in front of us, that we get to compete for Cal, and let’s get better.”

And better the Bears did get.

Sophomore Milan Clausi led the blue and gold’s comeback effort in their next event. Last season’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year won the vault with a 9.95, matching her career-high in a blue and gold resurgence. The Hornets were faltering and while the Aggies and Spartans were staying competitive, it was increasingly clear that the NorCal Classic title would go to either the Cardinal or the Bears.

Cal’s performance on the uneven bars cemented that conclusion.

“We had a phenomenal bar rotation. They really did a great job, hit their routines, lights out, just like they do in the gym,” Howell said.

The bars have now been the Bears’ strongest event at consecutive meets. Junior Emi Watterson tied for the uneven bars crown, leading her team to a 49.15 score in the event. It was Cal’s second score over 49 on the day, a day in which the blue and gold were the only squad to post a score over 49 in any event.

There was no relaxing, however, as the NorCal Classic came down to the Bears’ final performance in their final event. Cal’s last rotation, the balance beam, had been its weakest at the Collegiate Challenge, and the team now needed to overcome that weakness in order to win the NorCal Classic.

Waterson delivered once again. After serving as an unscored exhibition athlete on the balance beam to open the season, Waterson performed when it mattered most, scoring a 9.725 and completing her team’s come from behind victory with a total score of 194.95 to second place Stanford’s 194.7.

Despite their early struggles, the meet would end as blue and gold sweep, with the Bears taking home victories in each event. Junior Kyana George continued to stand out and consistently perform even when the rest of her team was not, winning the all-around, floor and balance beam — making her the No. 10 all-arounder in the nation.

Howell was pleased with how his team responded to adversity.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected].