Bears head to Minnesota for NCAA Championships after long virtual winter

Photo of Cal Men's Gymnastics
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This season has been like no other in history, as most of the season has been “virtual.” With teams competing alone in their respective gyms, an inescapable feeling of isolation has overshadowed many events.

But, thanks to the increasing availability of vaccines and the continuing improvement of the public health situation in the U.S., we are finally nearing an end to this lonely time. So too is the gymnastics community, as the upcoming weekend’s NCAA Championships will mark the end of the 2021 season. Despite the cancellation of last year’s event, the 2021 NCAA Championships will come back to Maturi Pavillion in Minneapolis, Minnesota on April 16 and 17.

Selected teams and individuals for this year’s NCAA Championships were announced last Tuesday, and with a qualifying score of 387.513, Cal managed to grab one of the 12 seats this year. For the Bears, this will be their seventh consecutive appearance on the national stage. Among the other qualifying teams are Stanford and Oklahoma — whom Cal faced at the MPSF Championships — as well as William & Mary and individuals from Army, so the competing field will be full of familiar foes. Select individuals from Air Force, which didn’t manage to qualify as a team, will also take the stage.

Despite last week’s somewhat disappointing fourth-place finish at the MPSF Championships, the blue and gold have set their sights on nationals, looking to amend mistakes from the week prior.

“With NCAAs in sight, our training is now more focused on refinement than ever,” said freshman Noah Newfeld, who has garnered multiple honors and served as the team’s rock throughout this season. “We want to make sure that we are prepared for the best meet of our season and hopefully make it to NCAA finals as a team.”

Cal has been a familiar face on the national gymnastics stage and has won a total of four titles in its history, the most recent one being back in 1998. Since 2015, however, the Bears have been struggling to get into the final round of the NCAA Championships, where the top three teams from the qualifying round compete head-to-head-to-head.

As the No.11 team in the nation, Cal isn’t necessarily expected to make a lot of noise at this year’s final meet. Captain Caleb Rickard, however, hopes to turn the stage upside down.

“Many people view Cal as an underdog team and do not view us as a team that can make finals. We’re trying to change that this year,” Rickard said in an email. “We’re capable of much more than what most people think, and I’m excited to show that one last time.”

Several Bears gymnasts, including Rickard himself, have been demonstrating that possibility. Hitting a career-high of 14.650 this season on his specialty, vault, Rickard is now ranked 7th nationally in the event. Sensational debut performances from freshman Newfeld, which gave him four CGA Rookie of the Week honors, also offer the team hope. Additionally, sophomore Will Lavanakul earned the 8th highest score nationally on pommel horse this season, which helped to turn the team’s weakness into strength. And finally, junior Yu-Chen Lee led the way with his steady routines throughout the season, which earned him two MPSF Gymnast of the Week honors. Equipped with these talents, head coach JT Okada is hopeful — though he does note that it feels strange to be on the road again after so many virtual meets.

“It was indeed very strange to be traveling during this time especially with all the new precautions we have been taking,” Okada said. “The team handled this new adversity with tremendous strength and poise, and I’m very proud of such a young team to be able to do this.”

Cal fans can witness the team’s last stand, starting with the qualifying round at 5 pm on April 16 and  — if it qualifies —  the final round at 5 p.m. on Saturday, April 17.

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