At an altitude of 6,800 feet in Colorado, the pressure of the atmosphere is low — except for the Cadet West Gym at the Air Force Academy, where teams and fans gathered in person for the first time this season, putting extra pressure on a young team like Cal.
At the MPSF Championships last Saturday, the blue and gold finished fourth with a score of 386.950. Despite a promising start to the meet and three season-best event scores, Cal was bested by its formidable opponents. Top-ranked Oklahoma took home the victory, beating the defending champion Stanford, which came second. Air Force, meanwhile, finished 1.4 points ahead of the blue and gold to earn the last podium spot.
“Going into the meet, we knew nerves would be high and the atmosphere itself would be much different,” said captain Caleb Rickard in an email. “Not only was this competition in person, but we were competing in a new atmosphere, with three other schools, and for the first time this season, fans.”
With Rickard being the only Bear who had experienced MPSF Championships prior to this year, and with the unusual setting of competitions thus far this year, the biggest challenge this time may have been a psychological one.
Nevertheless, Cal came out in impressive fashion on the bars: On both parallel bars and high bar, the Bears notched season highs. Four out of five gymnasts garnered scores of more than 13.000 on parallel bars, and junior Kyle Abe and sophomore Aidan Giusti collected career highs. Freshman Noah Newfeld also managed to hit a career-best score on high bar, and junior Yu-Chen Lee threw down an impressive 13.600.
Going further into the meet, however, the pressure started to hit. Despite the steady finish by Lee on floor, the team was only able to muster a collective 62.900, more than three points down from the last meet.
It was the pommel horse, however, where Cal had the most obstacles in its way. Though the event has become the Bears’ new strength this season, they scored just 60.550 in it Saturday.
Cal regained its composure on the rings. A season-high score of 13.300 from Lee and 13.450 from Newfeld helped the team get back in the fight.
On vault, all five members of the lineup earned scores over 13.000, and Rickard’s 14.650 placed him on the podium in the event. Nevertheless, points lost on floor and pommel horse in the middle of the meet proved fatal, as Cal was ultimately bested by the other three teams in attendance.
In spite of a somewhat disappointing showing at the MPSF Championships, the NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Committee punched No. 11 Cal’s ticket for the NCAA Championships on Tuesday. While inexperience is one of the team’s greatest challenges, achievements by new faces such as Newfeld — who received the CGA Rookie of the Week honor for the fourth time this year — nevertheless propel the team.
In the face of the biggest stage this season, however, head coach J.T. Okada stays calm, with an unchanged philosophy of focusing on progress.
“We will focus on improvement as usual,” Okada said. “I also expect that we will be aggressive with some routines and add some difficulty where necessary.”
The qualifying session of the NCAA Championship will be hosted at Maturi Pavilion in Minneapolis, Minnesota at 5 pm on April 16th, where Cal will compete for the opportunity to advance to the final round held the following day.