Breaking Boundaries – Teams To Watch!

By Ashlee Buhler for Inside Gymnastics

When women’s gymnastics was introduced as an NCAA championship sport in 1982, the University of Utah dominated the field of competition. That was until the late 80s when the University of Georgia and the University of Alabama arrived to shake things up. They were not only fierce competitors in the SEC conference, but in the national rankings. Then came UCLA—15 years after the Utes won their first NCAA title. When Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2010, the conference finally had a new, intense rivalry of its own. 

Nearly 30 years since gymnastics became recognized as an NCAA championship sport, new teams are dominating and breaking up the traditional powerhouses, with a handful of teams on the rise and hungry for the top spots. The University of Florida won its first NCAA title in 2013, while the University of Oklahoma won its first title (in a tie with Florida) in 2014. For the first time in 32 years, a non-SEC or Pac-12 school had won a national championship—a groundbreaking moment in collegiate gymnastics. All the while, a team like the University of Michigan has quietly climbed into the top of the NCAA rankings. A team from the Big 10 has never won an NCAA title, but that has not stopped Michigan from dominating their conference. They have won 25 of the last 30 Big 10 titles and continue to prove they can hang with the best of the best. Teams like LSU have also entered the conversation after winning the last three SEC titles in a row and finishing second in four of the last five NCAA finals. This leaves fans wondering when a new team will break through to win the championship. Who will be next to challenge the status quo? 

The tide seems to shift every few years and new teams emerge as ones to watch. However, it does not happen overnight. A college team on the rise begins with a coaching staff that is experienced, but also knows how to bring out the best in their athletes. It continues with strong recruiting—finding athletes who are not only talented and passionate about the sport, but who show leadership qualities on and off the competition floor. It culminates when the sparkly leotards are on and the lights come up; the hard work in the gym, the talent on the roster, and the cohesiveness as a team leads to success on the competition floor. Those who can keep this cycle going over time will eventually find themselves breaking the boundaries. And the tide will shift again. 

In this three-part series, we take an in-depth look at some NCAA gymnastics teams on the rise and right on the verge of shaking up the rankings. Up first: California.

Up First! The California Golden Bears 

A decade ago, the Golden Bears were a blip on the radar. They never placed higher than fifth at the Pac-12 Championships and only once did they qualify a full team to the NCAA Championships. Enter co-head coach Justin Howell, who took over the program in June 2012. Under the guidance of Howell, Cal’s transformation to perennial powerhouse persisted. To put it all in perspective, Cal finished the 2012 season ranked 49th in the nation. Just two years later, they finished the season ranked 16th. Cal’s 33-spot rise in just two years remains the largest margin of improvement in NCAA gymnastics history and a testament to how strong the program is. 

It was not a surprise for Howell, though. From the moment he stepped on campus, Howell said he knew Cal could be an excellent gymnastics school. But, he also knew the program needed a culture shift and a coaching staff that was experienced at every level. His first hire was his wife, Liz Crandall-Howell, a seven-time U.S. national team member, Olympic trials competitor, and brevet judge. 

“Liz is a superstar, and I’m not just saying that because we are married,” Howell said. “She truly is the best of the best. We both have extensive experience coaching grassroot levels to the Olympics, so I was very confident that we could get our team to a place where they were consistently competing at a high level. We also had immediate buy-in from our student athletes… Our first meet that season was at home against Auburn, Kentucky, and Arizona. We won the meet and it was a huge confidence builder for our team. From that moment, they knew their training was working.” 

#onedaybetter has been the team’s motto since day one. It is at the core of everything they do. This is a message that Howell said the athletes receive every day.

“We wanted our team to know that if they put in the work and if they bought into our system, that they could achieve high levels of athletic success,” Howell said. “We wanted our team to not be afraid of setting big goals, and to talk about our goals out loud. Our first big goal was to qualify into the postseason. The team had not qualified to the NCAA Regionals since 2007. We qualified to Regionals our first year of coaching the team in 2013. From that point, we wanted to develop an expectation that qualifying for the postseason was just something that this program does; because we put in the work and we believe in each other.” 

Bears By the Numbers

The next goal was qualifying a team to the NCAA Championships, which they did in 2016 for only the second time ever in program history; ending a 24-year drought from their first appearance in 1992. As far as NCAA regional appearances go, Cal has qualified a team in every year that Howell has been at the helm. Their most recent appearance came during the 2019 season when Cal was undefeated at home and then went on to break their program record (197.625) en route to qualifying to Regionals. With a top 10 national ranking, things looked promising in 2020 as well until the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the season. 

Without a doubt, the last five years have produced some of the most accomplished gymnasts in Cal’s history, which has helped catapult the program into the spotlight. Toni-Ann Williams, who represented Jamaica at the 2016 Olympics, broke record after record during her time as a Bear. Williams is the only gymnast from Cal to have scored two perfect 10s (the only other perfect 10 in their history was Cindy Tom on bars back in 1992.) Williams also holds the program record on floor (9.975) and in the all-around (39.700).

Among the other school records are current athletes like junior Milan Clausi. 14 times in her career so far, her cleanly executed Yurchenko 1.5 has brought in a 9.95—the third highest score in program history. She also holds the third highest score in program history on beam (9.9), which she has done 56 times, and on floor (9.925), which she has done 28 times. Clausi’s fellow classmate Maya Bordas, holds the second highest score in program history on bars (9.95). For the last three years, Cal has also had a star in senior Kyana George, whose personal all-around best of 39.650 ranks among the best in the nation.

Looking Ahead – The Outlook

The team also has a phenomenal freshman class this season, with the likes of Andrea Li, a JO National Champion and Nastia Liukin Cup Champion, and Gabby Perea, a former U.S. National Team Member who won numerous gold medals on the international stage from 2016-2019. It has become increasingly common for former U.S. national team members to fill the rosters of teams who have national titles to their names, but for Perea, it was Cal that felt most like home. 

“One of the reasons that I chose Cal was because of the vibe that I got from the campus, team, and coaching staff,” Perea said. “Before I got to campus, I had only met Justin and Liz a handful of times, but I felt comfortable with the duo and when I met the team, everything clicked and I felt like I was home.” 

After a steady climb, the Bears are perhaps the strongest they have ever been in their program’s history. They have the talent, they have a strong coaching staff, and they have the passion; now there is just one thing left to do. 

“I would like to see us rise to the top of the Pac-12 and win a conference championship,” Howell said. “I want Cal Women’s Gymnastics to consistently be in the national championships conversation and for our team to fight for an NCAA title on the last night of competition. I am also very excited for us to break ground on a new training facility. I believe all of the pieces of the puzzle are coming together for us to reach our goals.” 

Stay tuned for next week, when we take an in-depth look at the Iowa Hawkeyes. 

Photo credit Marcus Edwards/KLC Fotos

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