Bears post season-best score, look forward to Pac-12 Invite

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For the first time since March of last year, the Cal men’s gymnastics team broke the 400.000 scoring plane in its best performance of the season as the Bears took on Stanford and Oklahoma at the Stanford Open.

Finishing third in the competition, Cal proved it could compete with the best with a 400.700 — a 15-point improvement from its previous meet. The tri-meet was the blue and gold’s first competition on the road, but the distractions and nerves that come with unfamiliar territory had no effect on the Bears.

In an interview, head coach J.T. Okada emphasized his team’s ability to overcome the obstacles of being on the road and gave credit to the mentality and focus of his squad.

Cal hit season-highs as a team in every single event, bearing witness to a litany of career- and season-bests from gymnasts up and down the roster. On floor, the Bears improved on their previous success with a 71.500 that included five gymnasts with scores of over 14.000. For context, the Bears had only one gymnast, Darren Wong, hit a score of 14.000 or higher in that event in their previous two meets.

Likewise, their floor success was complemented by improved performances on the parallel and high bars, as the Bears posted 64.800 and 64.350, respectively. Asad Jooma continued his consistency on vault, as his third consecutive 14.000-plus performance lead Cal to its season-best outing in that event.

But the biggest story of the night by far was Cal’s drastic change on pommel horse. Coming into the Stanford Open, the blue and gold had put up scores of 59.100 and 57.700, team totals that are both far below the Bears’ capabilities.

But Cal buckled down and tightened up its routine, resulting in a 64.050 that beat No. 1 Oklahoma in that event. Wong’s 13.700 paced the Bears and was second among all gymnasts at the meet, while freshman Will Lavanakul rebounded from an 8.550 against Air Force and Stanford to post a 13.100 at this meet.

“We worked really hard on pommel horse all week,” Okada said in a press release. “It’s no secret that it was a source of issues for us in the past two weeks. We did what I said we were going to do: (we) went back in the gym and practiced on it.”

That’s not to say that the Bears have no room for improvement. Cal will be looking to build on its rings, parallel bar and high bar scores while ensuring that the improvements made on floor and pommel were not one-time successes. Luckily for the blue and gold, they will have the benefit of home gym advantage as the team takes on Arizona State, Washington and Stanford in the upcoming Pac-12 Invite Open.

The Huskies and Sun Devils have each put in middling performances so far, with Washington posting 375.350 at the Rocky Mountain Open and a season-high 382.050 at the Washington Open, while ASU posted 383.100 at the same event and a season-high 395.850 at the West Point Open Prelims. The Pacific Northwest squad excels on parallel bar and rings, ranking 12th and 11th in those events respectively. In contrast, Arizona State is one of the nation’s best teams on vault and floor, in which it nationally ranks 7th and 9th, respectively. Ultimately, both teams will require substantially better performances to trump the Bears’ score, but at the very least, the Huskies and Sun Devils will provide an excellent litmus test for Cal.

The other team Cal will square off against is Stanford, an opponent the blue and gold are very familiar with. The Bears have faced the Cardinal in all three of their season matchups, and the well-funded No. 2-ranked defending champions have continued to show excellence across the board.

Brandon Briones, the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation’s, or MPSF’s, best rookie, has continued to excel in his freshman campaign; he posted an astounding 15.000 on floor during his last meet and was named the conference’s Gymnast of the Week as a result. Briones is arguably the best gymnast in the country and is matched in his excellence by Riley Loos and 2019 MPSF Gymnast of the Year Brody Malone, whose performances have both been impressive thus far.

While an upset is likely not in the cards for the Bears, the Cardinal nevertheless represent the level that Cal hopes it will one day compete at. For now, the blue and gold have continued to improve meet after meet and the Pac-12 Invite Open will give the team another opportunity to demonstrate its growth. Coach Okada emphasized once again that improvement and growth are the team’s main goals and that his gymnasts were capable of even better performances than their showing at the Stanford Open.

Cal will compete in the Pac-12 Invite Open on Sunday, Feb. 2 at 4 p.m. at Haas Pavilion.

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