BERKELEY, Calif. – It might’ve been Senior Night in Haas Pavilion, but all eyes were on freshman Jessica Howe Saturday evening in Cal’s regular-season home meet finale as the freshman Howe wowed her coaches and the judges and made her case for the Pac-12’s strongest newcomer with a new career-best 39.350 on the floor to help lead No. 19 Cal to a solid 195.675-194.950 win over UC Davis.
Howe broke her toe three weeks ago and has been limited in competition in practice, yet competed through the pain to take both the all-around and beam titles.
“It was great to have Jessie back close to 100 percent,” said Cal head coach Justin Howell. “She still has a broken toe and that hasn’t changed, but it was a great move that we rested her a little bit last weekend. We’ve rested her in practice and we planned on resting her again tonight but she said yesterday in practice ‘I want to compete. I can do all-around. My toe is fine.’ and when somebody says that, you’ve got to believe them and she went out and delivered.”
Cal’s seniors also showcased their veteran leadership in their last dual meet of their careers as a Golden Bear senior earned a top-three finish on four of the five events. Leading the seniors was Leilani Alferos, who claimed her second collegiate bars title in as many meets with a career-high 9.925.
The meet got off to a strong start with Cal’s third-highest vault score of the season, a 49.175 that was capped by sophomore Serena Leong’s title-winning 9.875 performance and followed by a second-place 9.85 from senior Dallas Crawford.
On the uneven bars, which is typically Cal’s strongest event, an uncharacteristic fall by bars leader freshman Emily Richardson rattled the Bears, and the team put up a 48.575. Still, Cal finished strong with Alferos’ new personal best, but UC Davis headed into the third rotation with a 97.775-97.750 edge.
“The one thing we need to improve on, and this has happened to us a couple of times this year, is not panicking when someone makes a mistake. And we saw it happen tonight,” Howell said. “There was a moment there on bars where we didn’t look like we were doing gymnastics because we loved it. The look on our face and the demeanor changed and I think why we’ve been doing so well the past few meets is because we’ve just been having fun.”
The Bears tried to regain momentum on beam but fell flat with another fall, although Howe claimed her fourth beam title of her young career with a 9.85 and fellow freshman Charlie Owens finished right behind her in second place with a 9.75. The team tallied a 48.650 on beam and regained its lead from UC Davis but entered the fourth rotation with just a slight 146.400-146.100 difference.
Cal closed the gap on floor, tallying a 49.275, the team’s second-highest score on the event this season, as Howe matched a career-high 9.85 and junior Crystal Paz matched her season high with the same score. Leong claimed her second title of the evening, putting up a 9.90, and senior Alicia Asturias, Paz and Howe shared third with their 9.85s.
“Tonight showed the resolve we had as a team that we were able to come off of two rough rotations and finish as strong as we did on floor which has been one of our weaker links overall this season,” Howell said. “We’re improving on floor and our confidence is getting stronger.”
After the meet, Alferos, Asturias and Crawford were all honored for their dedication and perseverance to the team. The Bears were also joined in competition by the Cal men’s gymnastics squad and Washington men for the annual coed meet as both Cal squads celebrated their home dual finales together.
While Saturday’s meet was Cal’s last dual meet of the season, the Bears will stay in Berkeley to host the Pac-12 Championships next Saturday, March 22nd. The two-session event begins at 1 p.m. and will feature all eight elite gymnastics squads from the Pac-12. Tickets are available on CalBears.com and by calling (800) GO-BEARS.
“All eight schools in the Pac-12 are in the top 30 in the country so I think this is going to be the closest Pac-12 Championship that we’ve ever had just in terms of how close all the schools are together,” Howell said. “Everybody has an opportunity to win that meet. It’s going to be a fun and competitive atmosphere.”
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