Bears recover from early stumbles in desert, return home against Utes

Lisi Ludwig/Staff

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You know that moment? That moment of embarrassing surprise. That moment when you walk into class 10 minutes late, sit down and look around in shock as everyone pulls out their blue books and pens for an exam which can only now be described as utterly destructive to your GPA.

There are moments when, no matter how prepared you think you are, life takes the wheel and decides that whatever you planned is a myth. No. 12 Cal women’s gymnastics was faced with one of those moments at the outset of its visit to Arizona State, a moment that would ultimately consign the blue and gold to a 196.300-196.250 defeat.

Junior Alma Kuc sustained a minor injury on the Bears’ final warmup run for their first event, the uneven bars. Kuc, who was slated to compete in the event and had not posted below a 9.800 this season, was suddenly unavailable.

“We’re under the gun, the clock is ticking, so we had to make a quick game-time decision, who’s going to go in and take her place?” said Cal co-head coach Justin Howell. “That just adds a layer of stress and a change of energy that can be hard to come back from.”

That game time decision ended up paying off. Sophomore Talitha Jones stepped into the breach in her first appearance on the uneven bars in nearly a month and tied her season high while  keeping the blue and gold in the meet.

But Cal couldn’t escape the stress. Junior Nina Schank and sophomore Maya Bordas, who have both been excellent in the event in recent weeks, each made mistakes on their jaegers. Bordas fell and tallied a 9.400, while Schank made a critical error and fell to a 9.35. The flaws were uncharacteristic — the Bears rank in the top six nationally in uneven bars —  and forced the team to count a lower score which would ultimately put the meet out of reach from the outset.

Despite the disappointment, co-head coaches Howell and Elisabeth Crandall-Howell took heart in multiple aspects of their squad’s performance. A 196.25 could seem like a let-down, especially considering the fact that Cal has scored more than 197 in their last two meets — but it is still the Bears’ third-best tally of the season.

Howell pointed to his team’s ability to bounce back from potentially derailing moments. The blue and gold dealt with similar circumstances after a fall against Washington and managed to recover. All-arounders Kyana George and Neveah DeSouza continued to stand out, splitting the meet’s crowns between themselves. DeSouza took home first in the bars with a career-high 9.900, while George won the all-around and nabbed the other three event titles, bringing her season total up to 12.

“It doesn’t always go perfectly, but it’s how you respond to those situations, so I think another good learning opportunity for our team,” Howell said.

What could be more concerning is Cal’s newfound losing streak. The Bears will return home having lost both of their away contests against Arizona State and Washington. While actually winning or losing a meet is less important during the regular season — when rankings and average scores are the primary focus — confidence and experience in outdoing opponents in an unfriendly setting will be important factors in the postseason.

“Obviously, we don’t want to continue on that trend. But at the end of the day, the wins and losses don’t mean anything until you’re actually in the final night of competition at the NCAA Championship. What matters is that we continue to increase our scores,” Howell said.

The Bears’ next opportunity to improve will come when they host No. 3 Utah on Saturday. The Utes have been one of the best teams in the nation and rank in the top 10 in every event.

Cal is not entirely outmatched, however. The blue and gold have danced with the nation’s best before, taking on No. 1 Oklahoma and No. 5 UCLA in their season-opening Collegiate Challenge. The Bears are also returning to Haas Pavilion, where they put up their best score of the season, a mark which is better than any single score the Utes have managed.

“We were super excited for this meet. Our team tends to rise to the occasion. We know we’re going head-to-head with a team that we know is super solid and we’re going to have to be at our best,” Howell said. “Bear fans, you don’t want to miss this — this is going to be an unbelievable display of athleticism and excitement.”

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