Can Cal men’s gymnastics spring back against Air Force?

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Coming off a tough loss against defending national champion and No. 2 ranked Stanford, Cal is looking to prove that its performance last week was only a bump in the road rather than the team’s status quo as the Bears take on the Air Force Falcons at home.

The Falcons come into the meet off the back of a fourth-place finish at the Rocky Mountain Open, a decent start for the 11th ranked program in the nation. The military academy beat No. 12 Washington but fell short of defeating No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 7 Minnesota and No. 3 Nebraska.

One particularly notable performance was from Air Force junior Frankie Valentin, whose 78.550 all-around score was the fourth-best collegiate finish at the meet. Valentin, the Falcon’s Most Valuable Gymnast last season, led his team in five events, including a career high 13.600 pommel horse score, and will look to continue his excellent form as the team travels west to take on the Bears.

Air Force struggled on the high bars, a trend that continues from last season when the Falcons posted four of the lowest six high-bar scores at the 2019 Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Championship. Last season, Air Force could count on All-American senior Lukas Texeira, the best high bars gymnast in program history, to shoulder the load, but his absence leaves a hole not easy to fill. The Falcons’ 58.000 team score in that event was the lowest of all the teams at the Rocky Mountain Open and is almost five points below the Bears’ score in their season-opening meet.

Cal enters this meet looking to rebound from a less than stellar performance at the Cal Benefit Cup. The blue and gold struggled to find consistency against its then top-ranked opponents, as the team posted a 382.850, its lowest team total in years. Despite the overall disappointment, the Bears’ opening meet gave some reasons to be optimistic.

Freshmen Noah Sano, Will Lavanakul and Kyle Shuttle all made team debuts against the Cardinal. While the trio did not best the Stanford gymnasts, they posted respectable scores in their respective events. Sano was particularly impressive on the parallel bars, posting a team high 13.300 in that event.

“I only did two events but I was able to hit those. And I want to keep it up for the next competition too,” Sano said.

It was not just the fresh faces who had impressive performances, as senior Asad Jooma and sophomore Caleb Rickard posted impressive 14.000 and 13.900 scores on vault, respectively, with Rickard achieving his career high. The team as a whole performed well in the event with a 68.700 score, making vault the Bears’ best event of the night by far. While Stanford’s elite performance in that event may dominate the headlines, Cal demonstrated it was more than capable of competing in the vault category.

Unfortunately, the blue and gold’s standout performances were few and far between for a squad capable of doing better. Sophomore stand-out Darren Wong, who was the only Bear to return to the roster after making NCAA All-Around Finals, had difficulties finding his rhythm as he posted mediocre scores in almost every event.

The team as a whole posted its worst score of the night on pommel horse, and like Air Force’s difficulties on the high bars, the Bears’ poor performance is a continuation of last season’s struggles. Seniors Harrison Plate’s and Anton Vorona’s respective 10.000 and 10.550 scores on pommel were the lowest of the meet for Cal, and both gymnasts will be looking to improve on their dismal opening.

Coach JT Okada believes that despite the slow start, the Bears can rebound in the event moving forward.

“We are capable of so much better than we showed last week,” Okada said. “We talked to the guys a lot about their execution, and I think they’re getting there. We had a lot of debuts last week, so I’m hoping we can settle in after having some nerves last week.”

Ultimately, the meet will come down to the ability of both the Falcons and the Bears to fix their faults, stay consistent and maintain the right attitude.

“A couple guys on the team said that they felt like they can learn from their mistakes, and fix it for the next chance they have,” Sano said. “I’m excited for the rest of the season.”

Cal takes on Air Force at Haas Pavilion at 4 p.m. Saturday.

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