In a sport such as gymnastics, improving upon past performances is more important than winning a meet. The Cal men’s gymnastics team did just that when it opened its season Saturday evening against Stanford in the Cal Benefit Cup.
Despite losing to the reigning national champions’ 410.5, the Bears posted their second-highest season-opening result since the scoring system changed in 2017 — a 394.95. The mark, which boosted Cal from its preseason ranking of No. 9 to No. 6 in the nation, is also one that the Bears surpassed only twice last year and not until the middle of the season.
“There’s a lot of work to do,” said senior Noah Sano. “We had a lot of mistakes, but we were able to reset and come back throughout the meet, so I think that was really good. I think we have a lot of potential for the rest of this season.”
The blue and gold’s sole event win came on pommel horse, where they bested Stanford 63.8-61.9. The Cardinal snagged and kept the lead after the second rotation, but the Bears kept pace with it throughout the evening. Most notably, Cal’s 70.55 on vault, its highest event score of the meet, was just more than a point off Stanford’s 71.6.
Beyond the team’s collective performance, the night saw several Bears tally career bests and make impressive debuts. Competing collegiately for the first time, sophomore Jasper Smith-Gordon hit a massive 14.6 on vault to win the event title and rise to No. 3 in the national rankings. Freshmen Khalen Curry and Theodor Gadderud posted matching 13.45s on vault and parallel bars, respectively, to highlight their collegiate debuts.
Sano’s 13.95 on pommel horse was good for both the event title and his first career high of the meet. His other two came with a 13.3 on rings and a 13.95 on parallel bars, following junior Chris Scales’ career-best 13.5. After hitting personal records in every event he competed Saturday, Sano is first in the country on pommel horse, sixth on parallel bars and 25th on rings. His performance also earned him MPSF Specialist of the Week honors. And with senior Will Lavanakul’s 13.9 on pommel horse tying for second, Cal boasts two of the nation’s top three on the event.
“I’m really proud of (my personal bests), but at the same time, I hit … not my peak, but a really high bar for myself starting the first meet, so I’ve got to work extra harder starting next week so that I can beat these scores,” Sano said.
Junior Jelani Sweet’s career-high 14.45 on vault tied him for second on the event with Stanford freshman and U.S. national team member Asher Hong. In his debut for the Cardinal, the former No. 1 recruit in the country placed first on parallel bars and floor with scores of 14.55 and 14.35, respectively. Sweet’s and Hong’s vault scores land them at No. 10 in the nation on the event, and Hong’s other marks put him at No. 1 on parallel bars, No. 2 on floor and rings and No. 6 in the all-around.
Although Stanford won the rings title with a nation-leading 71.75, Cal showed its progression, with three of the seven personal bests the Bears recorded during the meet coming on the event. In addition to Sano, senior Aidan Giusti went 12.7 in the leadoff spot, and junior Noah Newfeld closed the rotation with a 14.15, good for third in modern school history and fifth in the country.
“As a team, I think we did better than we all expected, honestly. There was a lot of all-time highs and some lows, but overall I think that’s better than to be expected for a first meet,” Newfeld said. “Personally, I think I could’ve done better. There’s a lot of stuff I was working on all summer long that I really wish I could’ve hit today, but it’s the first meet, so there’s a lot of time left.”
Senior Yu-Chen Lee paced the Bears with consistent showings throughout the night. His score of 14.0 on floor tied for second with Stanford senior and U.S. national team member Riley Loos, whose 82.55 in the all-around and 14.85 on rings were both the highest of the meet and the best in the country.
Cal will face Stanford again at least three more times this season, giving the Bears multiple opportunities to compete against some of the nation’s best. The two teams next meet Jan. 28 at the Stanford Open in Stanford.