The tortoise and the hare: Bears to meet Cardinal for 7th time

Maddie Fruman/Staff

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Update 3/12/2020: Cal Athletics announced that all competitions, including Men’s Gymnastics, will be suspended until further notice.

“The race does not always go to the swift” — in Aesop’s “The Tortoise and the Hare,” two animals, a tortoise and a hare, compete in a race with the outcome undecided. The tortoise, though it may be slow, has a steady pace that eventually allows it to take the lead over the hare. The Bears might be behind last year’s national champion, Stanford, but with the steady progress they have made this season so far, the blue and gold are gradually approaching the hare.

Capturing a season-best 403.100 at their Senior Day meet against No. 7 Navy last weekend, the No. 11 Bears are traveling to Stanford this Saturday for a meet against the No. 1 Cardinal — the seventh time the two squads have faced each other this season. Despite news regarding COVID-19 and its prevention measures, the event is still taking place as scheduled as of now with safety precautions, including restricting attendance to essential personnel.

Last Saturday was a very emotional meet for the Bears, as seniors brought their families and friends from out of town to witness their last dismount in Berkeley. Turning that pressure into motivation, graduating seniors put on some of their best performances so far this season, with Kyte Crigger’s season-high 14.150 on floor and Anton Vorona’s 13.750 on rings.

Likewise, underclassmen showed very reliable performances. Sophomore Darren Wong’s steady routine brought him multiple season highs on pommel horse (13.700), rings (13.850) and high bar (14.050), netting him three event titles and a third-place finish. This was a marked improvement for Wong, who demonstrated a strong comeback after struggling in the last few meets. Sophomore Kyle Abe also hit a career-high score of 13.950 on high bar, continuing this improving trend.

“We need to get a little bit better overall,” said senior Jonathan Wang, reflecting on the Senior Day meet. “There are areas where we’re making small mistakes. Luckily at this point, (there isn’t) anything major to fix, though, just fixing small details that can get us a few more 0.1 points.”

Stanford is a familiar, yet formidable opponent for Cal. Defeating No. 16 Air Force by 27.7 points last Saturday, the Cardinal are by far the best team in the country, notching a 420.050 earlier this season — the highest score of any team in the nation.

Their roster includes Brody Malone, a three-time NCAA national champion and U.S. senior national team member, and two Nissen-Emery Award nominees, David Jessen and Bailey Perez. Sophomore Ian Gunther is also on the rise, as he was named MPSF gymnast of the week after an impressive showing at the Cardinal’s most recent meet. He won three events — parallel bars, rings and pommel horse — contributing to the team’s outright win over Air Force.

The Cardinal may be miles away, but the Bears are looking to keep their focus and make small steps forward in every meet. Though the blue and gold have been raising their standard over time, team captain Crigger thinks their effort has not been fully reflected in his team’s performance.

“I am looking forward to seeing our work pay off,” Crigger said. “We’re grinding in the gym right now, and it hasn’t shown in the competition yet.”

Head coach J.T. Okada, though, is confident in his approach of making small improvements each time.

“Our goal is just always continuing to improve,” Okada said. “One-tenths, those are the increments that we work for. Don’t take a small step, keep their hands still, point their toes or straighten the knee.”

As in the fable, the tortoise eventually wins the race by moving forward, step by step, slowly but steadily. Cal fans will hope to see the Bears make another leap 4 p.m. Saturday at Maples Pavilion.

Eriko Yamakuma covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].