Cal advances to NCAA Championships after a close night in Morgantown

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Vanessa Lim/Staff

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The fate of Cal’s postseason came down to the wire in the last rotation of Saturday’s Regional Finals. With No. 2 Michigan in first place and surprise qualifier No. 16 Ohio St. stuck in fourth, No. 6 Cal and No. 12 UCLA clawed for second the entire night. Going into the third rotation, the Bruins were just 0.225 points behind the Bears.

Only the top two finishers at regionals would advance to the NCAA Championships. For Cal, the difference between second and third meant going home or flying to Fort Worth.

With a season-high vault score, the Bears charged ahead of the Bruins. All six of Cal’s gymnasts scored at least a 9.85 and the team clinched a 49.375 event score. When all was said and done, the Bears clocked out with a 197.750 total score — the second-highest in program history — and secured their third trip to nationals as a team.

While the stakes of the final rotation were obvious to fans, the Bears consciously ignored them. In fact, the blue and gold didn’t check the scoreboard the entire night.

“We had no idea honestly, until we finished with vault,” said co-head coach Justin Howell. “At that point, everyone had the chance to look around the gym and see what was going on.”

Cal’s strategy paid dividends during the night’s most dramatic moment, but its journey to Morgantown began on a calmer note.

The Bears asserted themselves on the first night of regionals with a commanding victory in the semifinal. The blue and gold notched a 197.725, the third-highest score in school history, en route to a first-place finish. Their historic score dwarfed the competition: Second-place Ohio State was 1.2 points behind Cal.

Highlights from night one included senior Emi Watterson’s near-perfect bars routine. Watterson capped off the Bears’ signature event with a 9.975, pushing the team to an overall score of 49.6.

The judges awarded Watterson the highest score of the night, and co-head coach Elisabeth Crandall-Howell thought her routine was virtually flawless.

“[Her] bar routine was amazing,” Crandall-Howell said. “I’m not exactly sure where the deduction was.”

Regardless, the walk-on senior still holds three of the program’s top six scores. Additionally, Cal remains the No. 1 bar team in the country.

In contrast to Friday’s comfortable victory at the regional semifinal, the Bears got off to a shaky start in their signature event Saturday.

Although sophomore Nevaeh DeSouza, freshman Andi Li and Watterson all scored above 9.9, the Bears team score, 49.425, was their lowest score of the postseason. The Bears had hoped to build a solid lead at Regional Finals with a strong performance in bars but ultimately could not do so.

After a nail-biting first rotation, the Bruins and the Bears were tied for second. As Michigan began to pull away with three scores higher than 9.95 on bars, Cal found its footing on the balance beam. Led by DeSouza and junior Maya Bordas’ 9.925s, the Bears coasted to the third-best beam routine score in school history.

With a small lead over UCLA, Cal remained in second place going into the third rotation.

On the floor, it was senior Kyana George who shined. She scored a 9.950 pushing the Bears to an event score of 49.5, their highest of the night.

With a clutch vault rotation, the Bears solidified their spot in the NCAA Championships, forcing the Bruins out of nationals for the first time since 2006.

Since the regular season began, Cal’s coaching staff has maintained that the postseason is their team’s first priority. After narrowly missing NCAA Championships in 2019 and being forced to abandon their postseason dreams in 2020, the Bears were hungry for a trip to nationals in 2021.

“We told them at the end of the night, ‘This one is special,’” Howell said. “Considering the difficulty of this year, with the global pandemic and other challenges, this one means a lot. We are incredibly proud of our team.”

The Bears will fly to Fort Worth to compete at the NCAA Championships Semifinals on April 16. If they advance to the final round, they will compete again on April 17. Fans can catch the Bears in action on ESPN2 (semifinals) and ABC (finals).

Aiko Sudijono covers women’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected]