BERKELEY, Calif. – Four years ago, Alicia Asturias – now a senior, but back then a freshman -- sat in the middle of a team meeting as then-California women’s gymnastics head coach Cari DuBois delivered the somber news: We’re cut. The Cal women’s gymnastics program would be one of several athletic programs that would no longer be supported by the university's athletic department.
Fast forward to four years later, and the future could not be brighter for the Golden Bear team. Since 2011, the program has continued to exist thanks to generous support from the local and national gymnastics and Cal communities, and the gains from that support are becoming more and more evident through every meet. Those gains were especially telling at the Pac-12 Gymnastics Championships Saturday evening, when Cal produced its best finish ever to claim third, downing perennial gymnastics power UCLA and NCAA Championship regular Oregon State in the process.
The Golden Bears yielded a 196.550 team total, Cal’s second-highest score of the season and best score at the conference championship event, to finish behind Pac-12 Champion Utah (197.925) and Stanford (197.175). The Bears topped fourth-place UCLA (196.525), Oregon State (196.275), Arizona State (195.500), Arizona (196.250) and Washington (195.125).
Prior to Saturday’s championships, Cal had never finished higher than fifth, and more often than not finished last. Last year, Cal finished seventh of eighth with a 195.075.
“To come from the program being dropped my freshman year, to finishing like this, you cannot describe it with words,” Asturias said.
California head coach Justin Howell echoed the sentiment.
“For this program, which has been last in the Pac-12 for many years -- it’s like winning Nationals right now. From where we were, at the bottom of the nation, to now being in the top 20 in the country, finishing third in one of the top conferences and beating a six-time national champion in UCLA is unbelievable.”
Asturias has been integral in Cal’s rise, and she continued to prove it among the nation’s most elite performers, claiming a 39.425 to share second in the all-around. Sixth in the all-around was freshman Jessica Howe, who has been behind five of Cal’s 33 event titles so far this season. Four of those titles were from beam, which the entire Cal lineup rocked to win the evening session and put the Bears within close reach of a top-three team finish.
Top-seeded Utah and seeds No. 2-4 – UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State, respectively -- were in the afternoon session, which was comprised of the conference’s highest-scoring programs by regional qualifying score (RQS). The programs with lower RQS averages were placed in the second session, and any team score from the second session higher than a team score from the first session would be considered an upset. As the fifth seed, Cal received the best rotation draw of the four teams in its session, which included No. 6 Arizona, No. 7 Arizona State and No. 8 Washington. The team would proceed in Olympic order, starting on vault, then moving to bars, then beam before finishing up on floor.
Cal put up a solid 49.150 on vault to start the meet, with sophomore Serena Leong scoring the team-high 9.90. Asturias scored a 9.875 despite a small hop backwards on her landing. Freshman Jessica Howe and senior Dallas Crawford added 9.80s on top of a 9.775 from freshman Charlie Owens.
On the uneven bars, usually the team’s strongest event, Cal tallied a 49.075 with a trio of 9.85s from Asturias and fellow seniors Crawford and Leilani Alferos. Freshman Emily Richardson, who has been steady in the leadoff spot all season, tallied a 9.775, just shy of her career-high 9.80. Howe also counted a 9.75 toward the team total.
Cal’s performances on the first two events was good, but nothing out of the ordinary as the Bears led Arizona with a slight (.1) advantage, 98.225-98.125.
But in the third rotation, the Bears scored an incredible 49.275 on the balance beam to earn the second-highest beam total in program history and launch Cal into prime position to not only upset then-fourth-place finisher Oregon State, but tie and possibly beat powerhouse UCLA, who owned third place. Entering Saturday’s championships, the Bears had only claimed three victories from the Bruins in 76 meetings, including the postseason.
“I think beam is where we really set it off. I went up first and it felt so practiced, so business casual for a competition like this,” Asturias said. “To be at home, I really felt that advantage and took that opportunity to start my team off in a very normal way, and we did what we do every single day in practice, which is hit amazing beam routines.”
Following Asturias’ leadoff 9.80 beam routine, Owens added another 9.80 and then freshman Desiree Palomares kept the scores climbing with a career-high 9.85. Leong and Howe matched their personal bests with back-to-back 9.90s, which helped them to second-place finishes on the apparatus, and junior Crystal Paz capped the rotation off with a 9.825 to make it six hit routines all the way through.
“Our entire beam team tonight was on fire. That’s really what sealed this up for us. Beam is that make-or-break event,” Howell said. “If you can nail beam, you’re in a good spot, even if you just fare okay everywhere else.”
And the Bears were in a very good spot heading into the final rotation. The team needed a 48.775 to tie Oregon State and finish in fourth place, and a 49.025 to tie UCLA for third place. Before Saturday, Cal produced team scores of 49.025 or better on floor in five of its previous ten meets.
“I obviously pay attention to the scores as they come up, but I try not to pay too close attention to what we need and where we are because I’d drive myself crazy. I knew that if we just did floor the way that we were capable of, we were going to be right there,” Howell said.
Freshman Zoe Draghi started Cal off with a strong routine, but stepped out of bounds for a one-tenth deduction to finish with a 9.60. The Bears quickly regained momentum, collecting a 9.85 from Owens, a 9.90 from Asturias and a 9.85 from Howe. Next came Leong, who was a perfect 22-for-22 in hit floor routines in her career entering the meet.
Disaster struck. What usually is a score of 9.85 or better for the Bears (Leong was averaging 9.845 on floor and was ranked No. 32 in the nation on the event) turned into a 9.20 when Leong fell forward on her final pass.
It all came down to Paz, who needed to hit with a 9.575 or better to pass Oregon State, and a 9.825 or better if the Bears had any hope of catching up to UCLA.
“Zoe went out of bounds, so we were counting a 9.6, and Serena never falls. When that happened, I didn’t know what to say. That never happens,” Howell said. “It put the pressure on Crystal. We had that ‘Oh my gosh. She’s gotta hit this routine, and then we can achieve our goal tonight, but if she doesn’t, we’re at a loss.’ That was a lot of pressure for her, and she went out and delivered.”
Cal finished with a 49.050 floor score, .025 points better than UCLA, to post its highest Pac-12 Championships score and best finish at the conference event.
“It is so amazing. I didn’t know how the previous session did, so when we were in the corrals at the end, someone said ‘I think we got fourth!’ and then ‘I think we got third!’ and that is just crazy considering our finish last year,” Leong said. “We’ve come so far. It is just awesome this year. We have grown so much and we have taken our confidence from last year and built upon it.”
Now, Cal awaits its NCAA Regional assignment as the Bears seek their second consecutive regional bid as a team, and just 19th Regional appearance since the NCAA began sponsoring a gymnastics championship in 1982. Cal will find out its fate during the NCAA Gymnastics Champonship Selection Show on NCAA.com beginning at noon PT on Monday.
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