Cal searches for dark horse ahead of trip to Palo Alto

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After Cal men’s gymnastics’ big win against Air Force, a repeat victory Saturday will likely be riding on the team’s performance on pommel horse — many of the gymnasts likely to be competing on the other five events are less consistent high scorers. Saturday’s competition may not be the gymnasts’ first rodeo, but for some it could be their last. At this point in the season, coaches are looking to lock down who they plan to take to the NCAA championships in April.

The gymnasts competing on pommel horse will be saddled with a little extra pressure than usual. It will be the first apparatus the blue and gold compete in at Stanford this weekend. As such, performing well on the event could set the tone for the rest of the meet.

“Our pommel horse line up in particular is looking to make some noise,” said head coach J.T. Okada. “We can compete with the rest of them when we do it right and we hit our routines.”

If Cal maintains its momentum, Okada could be right. No. 1 Stanford scored a 64.550 on pommel horse at its last team meet, which is well below the Bears’ most recent score of 66.250. Specialist Aidan Li is likely to play a big part in making Cal one to watch on the event. After scoring just short of Stanford gymnast and Olympian Brody Malone at The Big Flip meet with a 13.900, he matched Malone’s score against Air Force with a 14.000.

Sophomore Noah Newfeld has also evolved into quite the star — he was the only men’s gymnast from Cal to qualify and compete at the 2022 Winter Cup in Texas last week. Not only did Newfeld hit all 12 times on every apparatus over two days of competition, he also upgraded two of his routines and scored 1 point higher on the second day. Exceeding expectations, Newfeld also finished ninth on pommel horse in the country and 17th all around.

“For a first showing that is not bad at all,” Okada said. “He’s pretty humble too so he’s not getting a big head out of this, he just wants to get back in the gym and work on bigger and better because the next time he comes to USAs he wants to have even more skills.”

After a big weekend for Newfeld, Okada will be giving him a slight break. Despite being capable of competing all around and typically competing in five events, Newfeld will take to the stage for just three Saturday.

In fact, Okada is planning to reduce all of his all-around gymnasts to only a few events for the upcoming meet. Gymnasts like Newfeld and senior Yu-Chen Lee, who hit all of his routines and scored first in all-around two weeks ago, are already favorites to compete at the NCAA championships. Going all in, Okada will likely give a few gymnasts the opportunity to compete all-around and possibly qualify for the summer USA Championships in August.

For the upcoming meet, however, with star players like Newfeld and Lee competing on fewer events, gymnasts who have lost their spots in the lineup due to injury or being outperformed will get a chance to prove they’re capable of holding their own at championships.

“My mindset going into (the meet) is to rest some guys, give some guys what I would call a last chance to show they can be part of that national championships lineup,” Okada said. “It’ll be a really good test for us.”

With gymnasts competing who typically stay on the sidelines, this weekend could either prove an unexpected success or confirm a lineup for championships full of tried and true competitors.

Emily Hom covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].