Jan. 4, 2012
The California women's gymnastics team will open the Danna Durante era on Friday, Jan. 6, when the Golden Bears begin the 2012 season at Sacramento State at 7 p.m.
Durante, the former associate head coach at the University of Nebraska where she guided the Huskers to a fourth-place finish in the 2010 NCAA Championships, embarks on her first season at the helm of the Cal program this winter.
She takes over a veteran group that welcomes back all but two gymnasts from the Gold Bears' 2011 squad. The group added a trio of talented newcomers in freshmen Maddie Kratzke and Crystal Paz and junior Leilani Alferos, who transferred to Berkeley from Oregon State. Durante, who earned All-Pac-10 honors as a gymnast at Arizona State, also welcomed Airborne Gymnastics head coach and team director Justin Howell to the staff as an assistant coach in June.
Seniors Alexandra Leggitt and Erica Varon will lead an experienced squad with a new vision heading into January. Cal placed sixth at the conference championships and sent three individuals to the NCAA West Regionals - junior Madisyn O'Brien and sophomores Alicia Asturias and Dallas Crawford - last season. The Golden Bears look to build on last season's performance and, under the new coaching staff, have worked feverishly in the gym the entire off-season to reach new heights in 2012.
"Justin and I are very excited to get the season underway and walk in the gym and perform our best," said Durante. "They are so hungry to compete. We know they are capable of great things. We have high expectations for these girls and they have worked very hard to reach their potential. We are really looking forward to seeing these gymnasts reach their goals and perform.
"We are impressed with their work ethic both in the gym and the classroom," Durante continued. "Several of our gymnasts have reached their highest marks this past semester which is a reflection of their continued dedication to being the best in every way. They are fully invested in what we are doing here and I am excited to see them compete."
Vault was an area of focus for the Golden Bears this off-season. The addition of assistant coach Justin Howell, who specializes in the event, will help bolster the competition this winter.
Expect any one of 10 individuals to compete in the vault for Cal this season. Seven Golden Bears competed in the event last year, including Alicia Asturias, who scored a career-best 9.800 at the NCAA Regionals in 2011. Madisyn O'Brien also competed in the vault in the NCAA Regionals last season and owns a career-best score of 9.775 in the event. The 2012 vault lineup could also include returnees Dallas Crawford, Alexandra Leggitt and Chelsa Spomer. Stina Olivere, Mariesah Pierce and newcomers Maddie Kratzke and Crystal Paz could also see action in the vault this season.
"We have made great progress in our training in this event and we are proud of all the great steps this team has taken to improve," Durante said. "We are already much stronger in the event as evidence by the dedication the gymnasts have shown in improving their start values. I believe this is going to be a much stronger event for us."
The Bears return an experienced lineup on the uneven bars. Alicia Asturias, Dallas Crawford and Madisyn O'Brien each competed in the event at the NCAA Regionals last season. Crawford recorded a career-best 9.925 on the bars last winter to lead the squad. Cal also returns bars specialists Stina Olivere, who competed in all but two meets in the event last season with a career-high score of 9.875.
"Since I arrived here, we have worked hard on improving our strength in this event and I believe we have made great strides," Durante said. "We are working to be clean, consistent and do the skills to the best of our abilities. We have a lot of experienced talent returning which will help guide the newcomers as we look to build a deep bars lineup."
Despite the loss of Avery Gee, Cal returns a lot of experience on the balance beam in 2012. Alicia Asturias and Madisyn O'Brien, who both competed in the NCAA Regionals in the event last season, highlight a deep and talented beam lineup for the Bears this winter.
Alexandra Leggitt, Mariesah Pierce bring a great presence in a beam lineup that could also include Erica Varon, Chelsea Spomer, Lina Nilsson, Nicolette Lew as well as newcomers Maddie Kratzke and Crystal Paz.
"We have a lot of talent working on the beam and they have all pushed each other to compete at a high level which is very exciting to see," said Durante. "We have a competitive lineup and are working to refine our skills to be consistent and clean."
One of the Cal's strongest events last season, the Bears expect to be just as competitive in the floor exercise in 2012. Cal returns the majority of its floor exercise lineup, including Alicia Asturias, who recorded a career-best score of 9.850 in the event at the NCAA Regionals last season. Six of the Bears seven highest scorers return this winter. Mariesah Pierce scored a career-best 9.900 to lead all Cal gymnasts in the event in 2011 and she will be part of a deep and experienced lineup that also includes Dallas Crawford, Alexandra Leggitt, Madisyn O'Brien, Lina Nilsson, Chelsea Spomer and Stina Olivere. Crystal Paz has shown promise during training and could also work her way into the event.
"The floor exercise was a strong event last year and we have continued to get better," said Durante. "We like to look at it as a performance where the gymnast is a character telling a story and our girls have worked hard with new routines to put that performance together."
The Golden Bears return all three of their all-around competitors from last season in Alicia Asturias, Madisyn O'Brien and Mariesah Pierce. Both Asturias and O'Brien participated in the NCAA Regionals last winter. O'Brien, who competed in the all-around in nine of the 11 meets she participated in, owns a career-best score of 39.000. Asturias, who has been limited with injuries in the preseason, competed in the all-around in 10 meets with a career-best score of 38.800. Pierce, who competed in the all-around in three meets last winter, owns a career-best score of 38.750. A bars, beam and floor exercise specialist, she will look to expand her role in the vault in 2012.
"All three of these gymnasts are very talented and have done a great deal in the preseason to strengthen their performances," Durante said. "They are open to everything we have asked them to do and we are excited to watch them in the all-around this season."
The Golden Bears will host four meets inside Haas Pavilion to highlight a challenging winter slate. Following Cal's season-opening trip to Sacramento State on Friday, the Bears will welcome NCAA runner-up UCLA to Berkeley for their first home meet of the season on Sunday, Jan. 15.
California will travel to Tempe, Ariz. the following weekend for a matchup with Arizona State on Friday, Jan. 20.
UC Davis is on the schedule the next two weekends with the Golden Bears and Aggies traveling to each other's campus. Davis will host the first matchup of the area schools on Friday, Jan. 27 while the Bears will welcome the Aggies to Haas Pavilion the following Sunday, Feb. 5.
Pac-12 competition continues for Cal as Stanford comes to Berkeley for a Sunday afternoon meet on Feb. 12.
The Bears will hit the road for the next four competitions, starting with a trip to Corvallis, Ore. and a matchup with defending conference champion Oregon State on Friday, Feb. 17. Cal will also travel to San Jose State (Fri., Feb. 24), Stanford (Sun., Mar. 4) and Boise State (Fri., Mar. 9) during its four-meet road swing.
The Golden Bears will host Washington on Senior Day in Haas Pavilion on Sunday, March 18 and will close the month of March at the Pac-12 Championships in Salt Lake City, Utah on Saturday, March 24.
The NCAA Regionals will be held Saturday, April 7 at various sites and the 2012 NCAA Championships will be held inside the Arena at the Gwinnett Center in Duluth, Ga. April 20-22.
"The schedule provides a great mix of for us with the Pac-12 Conference being very strong," Durante said. "It will certainly test us and we want to better our performance each week. Local competition will allow our gymnasts to remain in the area and not spend so much time away from campus during the academic year. That is a benefit I have not had before and I am looking forward to that. We are excited to get it all started this weekend."