Loss to Utah not enough to contain Bears’ hopes

Lisi Ludwig/Staff

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On Saturday, Cal women’s gymnastics co-head coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell stood gazing at a rapidly emptying gym and preparing to head to a post-competition event. Her women’s gymnastics squad had just lost its third consecutive meet, this time in the familiar confines of Haas Pavilion. No. 10 Cal fell to No. 3 Utah 197.550-197.325, despite entering the final rotation tied with the Utes.

When asked if that loss mattered, however, Crandall-Howell had a simple response.

“No, not really,” she said. “There’s no defense in gymnastics, you can’t do anything about another team. It’s not productive to think about anything they’re doing.”

It would be easy for fans to view those three losses in a negative light. Indeed, the time will come when the Bears will need to triumph. Victories will matter in the postseason. If the blue and gold want to shake things up down the road, they will have to beat teams like Utah.

But that time has not yet come. The Bears are still in the middle of their season, in the midst of developing and growing. Instead of focusing on wins, co-head coaches Crandall-Howell and Justin Howell want their team to be aggressive and take risks, to learn by doing and reach higher.

“One of the things we’ve been working on is being more aggressive and not trying to be perfect. Because you can’t create perfection,” Crandall-Howell said. “You can create an environment where if you go all out, you’re going to get closer to achieving what perfect looks like.”

That aggression has begun to pay off. Cal lost to Utah, but it did so in an absolute slugfest with one of the best teams in the country. Both teams put up their best scores of the season in a back-and-forth contest which saw each event score rise above 49.

“We’re not really focused on the score, winning or losing, we’re focused on the tasks for the next meet,” said freshman all-arounder Nevaeh DeSouza. “We don’t really talk about winning or losing, we just get ready for the next one and prepare as much as we can.”

The first rotation saw the Bears hit the vault and the Utes take to the uneven bars. The visitors were clinical in their first event. Senior Kim Tessen blew her competition out of the water with a 9.975, giving their team an early advantage and drawing cheers from the large contingent of fans dressed in red. The Bears refused to back down, however, as DeSouza paced her team with a career best 9.875, sticking her landing and bringing the blue and gold crowd to its feet.

The tables turned as both squads switched events. The Utes failed to hold their lead through the vault, as junior Sydney Soloski and freshman Maile O’Keefe both tallied 9.725. The Bears, on the other hand, proved their ranking as the No. 7 uneven bars squad in the country with a resounding 49.375 as all-arounders DeSouza, Kyana George and Maya Bordas all scored 9.900.

Cal took its only lead of the day, but it was one which the Utes slowly eroded behind two powerhouse performances. Utah showed why it is one of the nation’s best, reeling in six scores of over 9.900 on the floor and beam, including a jaw-dropping three 9.95 scores from Abby Paulson, Adrienne Randall and O’Keefe en route to an astronomical 49.625 beam score.

Those performances secured the Utes’ win, but the Bears still finished the meet more than satisfied after a season’s best on the beam with a 49.350. It was a result that Crandall-Howell was pleased with, but one which she viewed with more optimism than simple satisfaction.

“In the past we would have had to be lights out awesome to achieve a score like that. And now it’s the standard,” Crandall-Howell said of her team’s 197.325. “What’s it going to be when we actually have that lights out performance? Where’s that ceiling now?”

Cal will have its next opportunity to hit that ceiling when it heads to Stanford on Sunday. The Bears have faced their rivals three times this season and finished ahead of them on all three occasions. Focus is not on victory, however. Crandall-Howell emphasized her team’s landings as an area of improvement and their quest for advancement above all else.

“Stanford is also an environment that we like. It feels very familiar to the girls. I’m excited for next week, it’s also a great opportunity,” Crandall-Howell said.

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