By Jonathan Okanes
Cal Bear Blog
BERKELEY – When Cal junior Crystal Paz finished off her floor routine at the Pac-12 Women’s Gymnastics Championships on Saturday night, it set off a celebration worthy of a national championship.
Never mind that the Bears didn’t even win the event in which they were competing. Considering where they’ve come from and what they accomplished, Saturday provided a benchmark in the evolution of Cal’s program.
The Bears’ final team score of 196.550 placed them in third place, the best in program history. It was Cal’s second-highest team score ever and could make the Bears one of the 18 seeded teams when the NCAA Championship Selections are announced Monday.
The Pac-12 Championships were hosted by the Bears at Haas Pavilion.
“For us, this is another step forward in the progress of this program,” Cal coach Justin Howell said. “When we took over a couple years ago, we knew that Cal can be a top-10 program in the nation. I certainly believed that we’re capable of coming here and finishing in the top-three. The Pac-12 is an incredibly strong conference for gymnastics. The head-to-head competition is amazing. I knew that if we could put it all together, we could be up there.”
Howell said he knew Paz had to finish with a strong floor routine for the Bears to ascend to the third spot, and she tied her season-high with a 9.85. For Cal, which was forced to eliminate the women’s gymnastics program in 2011 because of budget constraints before fundraising efforts got it reinstated, the third-place finish was something special.
“To go from having the program dropped my freshman year to having a finish like that – it honestly does feel like we won the national championship,” Asturias said. “I was blubbering like a baby. When Crystal finished that floor routine, I was right there. I think every single one of us was right there on that floor with her. It was just unreal.”
The Bears were confident they could pull something like this off, but nothing is a sure thing in the ultra-competitive Pac-12. Seven of the eight teams in the conference are ranked, including Cal at No. 19. The Bears entered the tournament as the fifth seed.“We were in our Bear Bubble,” Asturias said. “This entire season, we’ve just focused on us – not getting distracted by the other team. We’ve done such a great job of it all year. This meet was no different.”