With just 15 NCAA men’s gymnastics teams across the country, the only two on the West Coast — Cal and Stanford — appear on each other’s schedules multiple times each season. Each matchup has a clear favorite: The Cardinal has won the last three national championships and boasts more than half of the U.S. national team.
The two programs’ most recent meeting saw another Stanford win, but the Bears captured the pommel horse title and one of their best season-opening scores in recent history. Exactly two weeks after that meeting, Cal and Stanford will face off again at the Stanford Open on Saturday at Burnham Pavilion. Not just an NCAA meet, the event will also feature elite and Level 10 gymnasts from around the country.
“Our first meet of the year, it was a really solid start for us, and I think the team realizes how good we can be. We need health to come along. We need to do our full difficulty routines, which we’re not there yet,” said head coach JT Okada. “But I think the team has a sense of, ‘We can do this.’ ”
The Stanford Open’s unique meet format includes six groups that will rotate through the events simultaneously, generating a competitive environment more hectic than traditional matchups. Three of the groups will be teams, with one comprising members of the U.S. national team; the others will consist of individual gymnasts seeking qualification for the Winter Cup.
Among the Bears’ most anticipated showings is junior Noah Newfeld, who will look to repeat his all-around performance at last year’s Stanford Open and punch his ticket to the Winter Cup for the second year in a row.
The Winter Cup, a qualifying event for the U.S. Gymnastics Championships, features the country’s top gymnasts; the top three all-arounders at Saturday’s meet who haven’t already qualified will be eligible for the Winter Cup in Louisville, Kentucky, on Feb. 24-26. With 10 of Stanford’s 20 athletes already prequalified, Newfeld enters the meet with favorable odds.
“I’m hoping to qualify for Winter Cup again this year, so I’ll have to do vault for an all-around score,” Newfeld said after the Cal Benefit Cup, where he competed every event except vault. “(I’m) kind of nervous about that. It’s a little bit more individual pressure, but overall I think I’m excited and wanting to capitalize on mistakes I made today.”
He added that he’s been working on upgrades to “be competitive on the national stage,” but Okada said Wednesday that Newfeld may not compete his most difficult routines Saturday due to minor injuries he’s had.
Other injuries will affect Cal’s lineups at the Stanford Open, with athletes such as senior Aidan Giusti and sophomore Tyler Shimizu unable to compete.
“We’re just kind of low on depth,” Okada said. “We’ve had some weird injuries that just came out of nowhere, and they’re not serious ones, but they’re enough to take guys out for enough training that they’re not ready for this meet.”
The roadblocks have not deterred the Bears, however. In the weeks since the Cal Benefit Cup, the team has focused on the theme of intentionality, Okada said. The gymnasts have strived to be purposeful with every training and every routine, and they will bring that mindset into Saturday’s meet.
Though the Cardinal will likely come out on top overall once again, fans can expect a Cal team that’s stronger than the one that debuted in mid-January. Individual athletes kept in step with Stanford’s best at Haas, and two weeks in the gym should mean Saturday’s routines will be even more solid.
“I’m really looking forward to seeing the improvement in individual routines because I know it’s possible,” Okada said. “Nothing you saw two weeks ago was perfect and polished. It was all pretty rough, and even with that, we had a good score. So every week, adding a little bit more polish, a little bit more shine — we’ll get there.”
The Bears will face Stanford and ambitious noncollegiate athletes at Burnham Pavilion in Stanford on Saturday at 7 p.m., in one of four Battles of the Bay across all sports this weekend. More eyes may be on Maples Pavilion for the men’s basketball teams’ decisive rematch, but less than a mile away at the same time, some of the nation’s best gymnastics will be on display.