The goal of first-year head coach Trina Tinti during her tenure at the helm of the Golden Bear program is not just to begin a new era, but also to begin a new tradition of success. The 1998 season will be the first step in that direction.
With the departure of Alfred Mitchell, the Bear leader for the past four years, Tinti inherits a program that was 9-11 overall, 0-6 in the Pacific-10 Conference, a year ago. Despite a disappointing conference showing, Cal finished sixth in the NCAA Western Regional, earning a 25th place national ranking to end the season.
The Bears will have to regroup, however, after losing four seniors to graduation, including co-Pac-10 floor exercise champion Mindy Ornellas, who holds the top two all-time scores in California history on that event with a 9.925 and a 9.875. Ornellas also posted top five scores on the balance beam (9.875) and the all-around (38.950) during her collegiate career. Cal will also miss last year's captain and four-year competitor Candice Kwok, who holds top five all-time scores on the vault (9.925), balance beam (9.90), floor exercise (9.850) and all-around (38.90). Jennifer Wang and Kelly Webster are the Bears other departures to graduation. However, Tinti has a nucleus of one senior, three juniors, six sophomores and three freshmen to build around.
"This is basically a rebuilding year for California gymnastics," said Tinti, who came to Cal after spending the last five years as an assistant at Minnesota which finished 10th nationally last year. "We are trying to upgrade the program to a higher level. Our goal is to finish in the middle of the Pac-10 Conference and break into the Top 20 nationally."
Leading the way for the Bears in 1998 will be Cal's only senior and co-captain Christine Nishimoto, who tied her career-high of 9.85 on the uneven parallel bars last year at the NCAA Western Regional April 5. She will compete in three of the four events for Cal -- uneven parallel bars, floor exercise and vault.
"Christine swings great bars and will be an asset to us on that event as it is her strongest, but she also could have strong showings on floor exercise and vault," Tinti commented. "As the only senior and team captain, she will be valuable to the team in a leadership role as well."
Sharing the duties of captain with Nishimoto will be junior Angela Mapa, who was voted to the Pac-10 All-Academic honorable mention team last year. Listed second on Cal's all-time list in the floor exercise with a mark of 9.875, Mapa is a tough competitor specializing on vault, balance beam and floor exercise.
"Angela is a powerful gymnast and strong vaulter," said Tinti. "She is also our strongest gymnast tumbling-wise on the floor exercise . She ends her floor exercise routine with a second double back which takes a lot of endurance because you are already tired."
The Bears return two other prominent juniors in Emily Bails and Jen Bialosky -- both three-event performers. Bails, a 1997 Pac-10 All-Academic honorable mention selection, competes on vault, balance beam and floor exercise. She set Cal's all-time mark of 9.90 on the balance beam as a freshman in 1996 and also notched the second highest score of 9.875 in Cal history on the floor exercise that same year. Her balance beam routine includes two back-to-back layouts--elements that are necessary to contend with top Pac-10 performers.
"Emily is a great balance beam worker. She is focused and aggressive," said Tinti. "She has a routine that is equal to or better than other conference opponents. We will be counting on her in that event."
Also a three-event competitor, Bialosky works uneven parallel bars, balance beam and vault, with the uneven parallel bars noted as her strongest event. She performs a high-flying release move on the apparatus and, if healthy, will be very dependable for the Bears. Lindsay Garrett and Elizabeth Alden have one season of competitive experience and are expected to see some action as well.
The heart of the '98 team will lie with the underclassmen. Four true sophomores return after gaining much needed experience during their freshmen campaigns. The Bears top all-around gymnast, Leila Khoury, will be looked upon to help lead the way.
"Leila is one of our top three competitors on every event," Tinti said. "She is a strong, powerful and flexible gymnast. We are counting on her to be one of our strongest all-arounders. She really doesn't have a weak event, which in itself is a great asset."
Joining Khoury in their second year with the Bears are Elizabeth Berlin, Chantel Debert and Jennie Kang. Berlin is an uneven parallel bars and balance beam specialist, who saw action in two meets in '97.
Debert and Kang moved high into Cal's all-time top 10 list on the uneven parallel bars and the balance beam, respectively, as freshmen last winter. A former Canadian junior national team member, Debert registered a 9.875 on the bars at the NCAA Western Regional to move into a tie for third place on Cal's all-time list. Also coming off an impressive freshman year is Kang, who landed a 9.90 on her balance beam routine versus Washington Feb. 7, tying the top Cal score ever on that event. Tinti is also planning on Kang's dancing ability to score high marks on the floor exercise for Cal.
"Jennie is a very pretty gymnast to watch, especially on the floor exercise," said Tinti. "She has an elegant presence about her--nice body lines and some unique dance combinations."
Also adding to the mix are three freshmen all-arounders in Paula Chang, Pari Olver and Helene Kenny. The vault is perhaps Chang's best event and she will be performing one of Olympic caliber--called a Yurchenko--which will be allowed to be performend for the first time in collegiate competition this season. Olver is also a strong vaulter, but really excels on the uneven parallel bars. She has incorporated two release moves in her routine, most gymnasts do only one, and will end with the highest level (a level "E") dismount. Kenny, who finished third in the all-around at the Junior Nationals in '97, is considered by Tinti to be a very promising collegiate gymnast.
"Helene has a ton of potential," Tinti said. "She finished third at J.O. Nationals with a weak vault. Our priority is to improve her vault this season, so that she can be a great all-arounder for Cal and a future NCAA All-American.
"The freshmen will pull the team up just by virtue of their gymnastic skills," she continued. "They have the ability to bring Cal gymnastics up to a new level in the future."
Cal enters the season with a team goal to break into the Top 20 nationally and compete in the middle of the rugged Pac-10 Conference. With a group of talented underclassmen and experience in the junior and senior classes, the Bears appear to be taking the necessary steps to contend with Pac-10 opponents as well as make a run in postseason competition.