Victory comes in many forms. For some, it’s wins and losses; for others, it’s records and achievements — but for Cal men’s gymnastics, victory is improvement.
The No. 12 Bears take on the No. 2 Stanford Cardinal on Saturday at the Stanford Open, hoping to continue their meet-to-meet improvement. The blue and gold opened their season with a less than stellar 382.850 performance at the Cal Benefit Cup, but rebounded with an almost three-point improvement last week against Air Force and Stanford. It’s a trend coach J.T. Okada would like to sustain moving forward.
“We definitely put together a better event,” Okada said. “We take it one routine one skill at a time one event at a time”
At their meeting last week, several Cal gymnasts came into their own to elevate the Bears to their season-best score. After a difficult opening meet, sophomore standout Darren Wong returned to form with impressive performances across the board. Wong, who qualified for the NCAA All-Around Finals last season, led the Bears in four events, including tying a career-high on parallel bars with a 13.750. His 14.150 was the meet’s top mark on the floor and was a crucial part of Cal’s victory over Stanford in that event.
“Darren is really coming into his own in his second year now,” Okada said. “We could tell he had the capability to be a strong competitor on all the events and he’ll be back there shortly to be an all-arounder, but he’s putting up five important, countable scores for us and he is showing that he is ready to take on the gymnastics and competition leadership.”
Similarly, sophomore Yu-Chen Lee posted a personal best 13.900 on vault and senior Asad Jooma scored over 14 on the vault for the second consecutive meet. Jooma, who may represent Pakistan in the upcoming 2020 Tokyo Olympics, has been a standout for Cal thus far.
While the Bears improved across the board last weekend, they continued to be haunted by their inability to perform on pommel. Cal posted a score of 57.700 as a team in the event against Stanford and Air Force, a regression from their already disappointing 59.100 score in their season opener. Freshman Will Lavanakul had an especially difficult meet, posting an 8.550 — nearly four points lower than his score at the Benefit Cup. He was not the only Bear to disappoint, however, and the team will hope to improve their scores going forward.
“It comes down to hitting your routine,” Okada said of his team’s pommel score. “We are trying to avoid those large deductions. From there we will try to clean up the form. But for right now, the focus has to be the hit percentage.”
On the other side of the mat is a team the blue and gold are very familiar with: the Stanford Cardinal. The Cardinal has now faced the Bears on two occasions, once at Cal’s season opening fundraiser, and again last weekend as Stanford surprisingly joined the Bears meet with the Falcons after weather delayed the team from leaving Palo Alto. In both meets the defending national champions won handily with impressive performances from top to bottom.
The keys to the Cardinal roster are MPSF Gymnast of the Year Brody Malone and freshman star Brandon Briones. Malone is arguably the best gymnast in the country, but Briones topped his all-around score at the Benefit Cup and kept pace last weekend. Both Cardinal gymnasts are among the nation’s top performers, and will likely to continue to impress going forward.
For most gymnasts, facing off against arguably the best team in the nation would be a source of intimidation and fear. But for the Bears, it’s a source of enthusiasm and energy.
“While we might be rivals with that team across the Bay and they may be in a very good position as far as funding goes and are coming off a championship, it doesn’t deter us for trying to do our best,” Okada said. “If anything, we want to rise to that challenge.”
Cal will travel to Stanford to take on the Cardinal on Saturday at 7 p.m.