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Golden Medals: Cal Gymnastics, Tennis, Women’s Water Polo previews

All 5 Cal programs covered this week are contenders for NCAA titles and ranked in the top 15.

Rio 2016 Olympic Games - Day 2 - Gymnastics
2016 Rio Calympian Toni-Ann Williams is back (from injury) to try to lead Cal Women’s Gymnastics back to the NCAA championships as a team.
Photo By Stephen McCarthy/Sportsfile via Getty Images

Happy New Year, Cal fans!

This is the first of two consecutive weeks of previews of Cal sports that compete in the winter. Today we will cover both men’s and women’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s tennis, and women’s water polo. Next week, I will get to the men’s and women’s swimming and diving, men’s and women’s golf, and rugby. Men’s and women’s track and field will be previewed two weeks from now, which will also recap the first two weeks or so of Cal sports action.

All 5 teams covered this week are plausible NCAA contenders, top 15 in the country (if not better, as in the case of Women’s Water Polo). I feel better about all 5 of these programs after researching them this week. The stronger national championships contenders (and Women’s Golf...who fits more into this week’s category in terms of expectation and maybe should have been swapped with Women’s Water Polo) will be covered next week.

Cal Women’s Gymnastics - Toni-Ann Williams is back and joining forces with two freshman Junior Olympic national champs!!!

Preseason Ranking: 11th - 2nd best preseason ranking in program history, 3rd in the Pac-12 behind UCLA and Utah

Key Bears returnees: Toni-Ann Williams has recovered from her early season ending injury last year. The Jamaican Calympian has also got another year of eligibility after this one.

Other Golden Bears to return include Arianna Robinson and the Seilnacht twins (Sofie and Sylvie). Another Bear that is returning from injury is sophomore Cassidy Keelen (a hyped recruit from Texas), who competed in 3 meets before dislocating her knee.

Graduated Bears: Desiree Palomares (who made the NCAA as an individual for the balance beam), Charlie Owens, Emily Richardson, Jessica Howe, Amber Takara, Zoe Draghi, Dana Ho

No Longer on the Roster: Mariah Peterson, after a fairly successful freshman year

New Bears to watch: Nina Schank (bars) and Kyana George (floor) both won Junior Olympics National Titles in 2017. Both finished in the top 10 in the all-around. Fellow Freshman Alma Kuc is on the Polish national team.

New Under Armour Kits:

Golden Bears will sport three different leotards in 2018.

Despite the large turnover in roster (~half of the team had graduated), there is the making of a special year for Cal Women’s Gymnastics in 2018...IF they can stay healthy.

Although they did not make it to the NCAA national championships as a team (which required a top two finish at the NCAA Regional), Golden Bears scored 196.300 at the NCAA Regional AKA highest score at an NCAA Regional in program history.

Toni-Ann Williams being back (and she looked great in videos from the fall, so she’s clearly healthy) is great to see. Plenty of rotation spots will be up for grab to newcomers this year - which is exciting to see with at least three impact freshmen in Kyana George, Nina Schank, and Alma Kuc. I am also excited to see what Keelen would be able to do this year (it’s not clear that Keelen is ready to go yet, based on social media).

For years, the coaching duo of Justin Howell and wife Elisabeth Crandall-Howell have preached about the team getting better since taking the program over from the brink of elimination. The program has now reached that near top (top 15 in the country) level and the challenge has transformed from just improving (but little to no expectations) to meet and sustain the high expectations.

If the team is healthy, I expect Cal Women’s Gymnastics to qualify the entire team for the NCAA national championships yet again like two years ago. If she is healthy, Toni-Ann Williams should wow as one of the best in the country yet again. This Cal squad is one of the more exciting program to track this winter. Be sure to get yourself over to Haas Pavilion to see the great show; Golden Bears have rewarded their fans by posting great record (8-1 with the only loss to eventual champs in Oklahoma) from the friendly confine of the Bear Territory.

The season starts next Monday, January 8th at Stanford in the NorCal Classics against the Cardinal, UC Davis, Sac State, and San Jose State.

***Women’s Gymnastics championship model is modified for 2018: In a move that would make it that much tougher to make the NCAA Championship as a team, NCAA has decided to change the number of teams in the final national championship from 12 to 8. Instead, each regional will now include 9 teams, with two doing a play-in on the first day of action. Day 2 will see the top 2 (of 4) teams from each session advancing to Day 3 where the top 2 will advance to the NC. If the preseason ranking is more or less true, this change will make the Bears’ desire to make the NCAA that much more difficult (but far from impossible).

Cal Men’s Gymnastics - Quietest top 10 program in Cal Athletics?

Preseason ranking: 10, although given how there are fewer teams in men’s gymnastics, top 10 (which was the Bears’ ranking season long an year ago) is not as meaningful as women’s gymnastics. Stanford is ranked 2nd in the country.

Key returnees: Yordan Aleksandrov (high bar), Aaaron Mah (all-around), Michael Rauchwerger (floor and vault)- the trio qualified for NCAA individual titles but none finished in the top 10

Key newcomers: Maybe it was due to the head coach leaving, we never got an article about the freshman class this year. There are 4 freshmen listed on the roster. They will likely get the opportunity to shine.

Graduated Bears: Bears actually don’t lose that much talent from an year ago.

Despite ending the year as the 12th best team in the country at the NCAA national championships, Cal men’s gymnastics has been one of the lower profiled program on campus. Cal lost head coach Brett McClure to a USA Gymnastics position and replaced from within by promoting J.T. Okada.

Similar to Cal Women’s Gymnastics who had the Howells who worked with Toni-Ann Williams at Rio, Men’s Gymnastics has a head coach in the recently promoted J.T. Okada who have coached at the biggest stage - 2016 Rio Olympics. Okada, assistant coach for the Cal program for the past 5 years, served as the coach for Cal alum Ryan Patterson, the lone representative of South Africa in men’s gymnastics, at the Olympics (making Okada the de facto head coach of South Africa).

Part of the problem for Cal Men’s Gymnastics is that they face rival Stanford (2nd best in the country last year and picked to be at the same level again this year) way too many times. While Cal is competing with their own team score from earlier in the year, it’s hard to not notice how much higher the Stanford scores are from the 4-5 meets that the two squads will have in an year (often with a couple of other teams).

Nonetheless, Canadian national team member Aaron Mah is a star in the making (Bears also signed another Candian star in Darren Wong for 2019) for the Golden Bears. Bears have a number of other solid individuals who are worthy of being checked out. Unfortunately, Bears will only have two home meets in 2018 but Cal fans can drive down to The Farm to see the Bears in three other occasions.

Cal Women’s Tennis - How good are the freshmen Anna Bright and Vivian Glozman?

Preseason ranking: 11th, even though this is a rebuilding year. In the Pac, only Stanford is ranked ahead of the Bears at No.1. USC and UCLA are 15th and 17th, respectively.

Key Returnees: Karla Popovic, Olivia Hauger, Maria Smith

Graduated Bears: Maegan Manasse, Denise Starr, Maya Jansen (graduate transfer)

Key Newcomers: Anna Bright, Vivian Glozman, Jasie Dunk

College tennis requires at least 6 core players for the 6 singles and the 3 doubles. Golden Bears will be looking to replace half of their roster in 2018 with the graduations of Manasse and Starr (both are listed as graduate assistant coaches for the Bears in 2018).

If the preseason polls are to be believed, opposing coaches have high expectations for the talented Cal freshman class in their first year. Both Anna Bright and Vivian Glozman are special talents. Bright is the top ranked recruit in the country. Bright and Glozman have paired up this fall and went 7-2; they should be the No.2 doubles pair. Bright was 16-4 in singles this fall, while Glozman was 8-6.

Golden Bears will have Karla Popovic back as their No.1 player in 2018. Popovic took a big leap forward between her sophomore and junior years. Although the Croatian senior played as the No.2 last year behind Manasse (who was injured and had to serve underhanded), Popovic was arguably the Bears’ best player - earning a No.45 ranking by the end of the fall (she started as the No.5 player in the country).

Olivia Hauger is entering her 3rd year as a Cal regular. Her consistent counterpunching style is a very solid asset in the middle of the lineup for the Bears. Her record from this past fall earned her the No.40 ranking in the country. Hauger and Popovic will be the top pair for the Bears.

Maria Smith has one year of starting under her belt, recording a 29-14 singles record on her sophomore campaign in 2017. Smith has been pairing up with freshman Jessie Dunk this fall. I can also see double specialist Stephanie Lin earning some times in the 3rd doubles with Smith.

With some holdovers from ITA Indoors national champions squad in 2016, Cal Women’s Tennis have some experience in winning a team national title. Even with some unknowns, Bears should be in the mix for both the ITA Indoors title and that elusive NCAA team title. Bears will host the ITA kickoff on January 26-27 for the right to advance to the ITA Indoors championship at Madison, Wisconsin. While the Bears have challenged Stanford in the regular season for the Pac-12 crown, Bears are looking for that sweet, sweet revenge over Stanford (ranked No.1 in the preseason poll) in the NCAA postseason one of these years.

Reminder: Cal Tennis has got enough support that the Hellman Tennis Complex was just renovated two years ago to the gem that it is today. I don’t think neither men nor women tennis would be on the chopping block (if we do come to that point in the near future).

Cal Men’s Tennis - Who are these guys?

Preseason ranking: 19 (after finishing 10th)...pretty good for all of my concerns going into this year. Pac-12’s USC (5th), UCLA (6th), and Stanford (13th) are ranked ahead of the Bears.

Key Returnees: Billy Griffith, J.T. Nishimura, Bjorn Hoffman

Graduate Bears: Florian Lakat, Filip Bergevi, Andre Goransson

Key Newcomers: 7 freshman joins the squad this year, leading by Jacob Brumm (No.11 recruit in the country), Paul Barreto (No.26 in the nation), Jackson Suh (No.44 in the nation), and the duo of Ben Draper and Jack Molloy from UK

Similar to Cal women’s tennis, men’s tennis will have to replace half of the lineup. Unfortunately for the Cal men, they will replace the entirety of their top half. Even with one of the top ranked freshman class in the country, Golden Bears have dropped from a top 5 ranking last year to a top 20 ranking this preseason.

Seniors Billy Griffith (No.49 in the country) and J.T. Nishimura will provide the Bears some continuity from the recent string of top 10 ranked squads. The Griffith/Nishimura duo is ranked No.52 in doubles. Sophomore Bjorn Hoffman has paired with freshman Jackson Suh in the past. Hoffman played as the Bears’ No.6 last year going 23-14 in singles. Hoffman also paired with Nishimura as the Bears’ No.3 double in 2017.

Barreto (13-5 in the fall), Brumm (11-4 in the fall) should be in the mix for a singles spot. Brumm has paired with Nishimura a bit in doubles this fall.

These records are rather deceiving because better players draw better competitions in these fall tournaments. Head coach Peter Wright have a lot of different options with this new roster in the spring.

Bears will host the ITA kickoff weekends on January 28-29 for a chance to play at the Indoors championship at Seattle, Washington. With more experience as the season progresses, it would not be shocking for the Bears to be a late blooming squad in 2018 and not be at their best until the NCAA tournament. Due to graduations, Virginia is no longer the title favorite, after their recent three-peat of the NCAA title.

Cal Women’s Water Polo - Last shot at NCAA glory for Calympians Dora Antal and Anna Illes

Preseason Ranking: N/A, Bears finished as the No.4 team in the country last year

Key Returnees: Hungarian Calympians duo of Dora Antal and Anna Illes, Emma Wright, Carla Carrega, Kindred Paul

Graduated Bears: Madeline Trabucco (goalkeeper), Genevieve Weed, Emily Laughlin

Left the program (possibly also have just graduated): Spanish Calympian Roser Tarrago (who also missed significant time last year)

Impact newcomers: Elli Protopapas (Greek national team), Brigit Mulder and Kitty Lynn Joustra (Dutch national team)

I know it is only year 2 of the Coralie Simmons era, but my expectation is high for the senior seasons of Hungarian Calympians in Dora Antal and Anna Illes (it would appear that Spanish Calympian Roser Tarrago has left the program...possibly with a degree already). Assuming that some of the freshman (particularly those with national experiences) will be impact players, I would like to think that the Bears can finally win that first NCAA title in program history.

One of the best to ever suit up for the Cal program, Dora Antal should easily set the new record for all time goals for a Golden Bears. The Cal scoring leaders for the past three years when she was with the team, Antal already has 197 goals and will only need 20 more goals to set the Cal record. Illes and Wright (member of the Canadian national team) are other prolific scorers for the Bears.

Defense-wise, Bears will get Kindred Paul back healthy after the Canadian defender missed time in the second half last year. While the goal scorers get the attention (and show up on the box scores), it will take a great defense for the Bears to get to that next level.

Bears did give some PT (11 games) last year to now junior goalkeeper Madison Tagg, so she will likely take over the starting goalkeeper job. Bears also have 4 other goalkeepers on the roster, including a freshman in Cassidy Ball. Men’s water polo was able to seamlessly transition to a new keeper this past fall (they also would need to do that again for next season), let’s hope the same is true for the Cal women.

A big part of my optimism has to do with Stanford, winner of 3 of the last 4 NCAA titles (with the one year being the special 2016 season when all the top players took a redshirt for the Rio Olympics), have graduated Maggie Steffens - Team USA superstar and daughter of a Cal alum (yeah, it’s a shame that she did not come to Cal).

While it is easier for Cal to make the NCAA women’s water polo championships (top 4 in the conference makes it unlike the men, where only the top 3 makes it), the goal has got to be to surpass the trio of UCLA, USC, and Stanford (the only three schools to have won the NCAA titles). With the combination of both veterans and freshman phenoms, this is a good year for the Golden Bears to least until the Bears start to tap into that Team USA pipeline as expected with the hiring of Simmons.

Golden Bears will kick off the season from Hawaii in two weeks before a long homestand of non-conference matches. The Big Splash is on March 4th from The Farm. Bears will host the MPSF Tournament in April 27-29 but will have to travel down to LA for the NCAA Championships in mid-May.