DAVIS, Calif. - Featuring the five Northern California women's gymnastics -- namely California, Stanford, San Jose State, Sacramento State and UC Davis -- the aptly named NorCal Classic has emerged into one of the top collegiate regular-season meets on the calendar. The inaugural version in 2012 packed Stanford's historic Burnham Pavilion beyond its capacity to the point that hundreds of fans were turned away. In 2015, when UC Davis hosted it, the meet drew 2,013 fans, setting a program record for a gymnastics-only event.
This year's NorCal Classic, held at Cal's Haas Pavilion on Monday, has every reason to continue the surrounding excitement. The host Golden Bears finished seventh in last year's final national RQS standings, with Stanford less than a half-point behind in 10th. The Aggies, Hornets and Spartans jockey each year for the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation team title and representation in the NCAA West Regional.
For John Lavallee, now in his 11th year at the UC Davis helm, the 2017 NorCal meet will serve more as an exercise in patience. The injury bug hit his team in the fall and slowed the training progress for many of his top returners, including All-MPSF honorees Katy Nogaki, Kara Jones, Amanda Presswood and Miranda Holder. The veteran coach knows to bring them back more slowly to start the season in the hopes of maximizing their output at the conference championships and -- if everything works out -- the NCAA regional.
"Ultimately, we want to be our strongest at the end of the season, so we want to give everybody the chance to be as healthy and strong as they can before they get out there," Lavallee says. "It's a long season and it's not worth the risk down the road. It's good sense."
In the end, the five-time MPSF Coach of the Year recipient has set the same goal for 2017 as he has in any previous year: win the MPSF team title and qualify for the NCAA postseason. UC Davis has essentially done this in almost every year since Lavallee's arrival: six conference championships in the last 10 years, the team NCAA berth in 2014, and individual NCAA qualifiers in eight other seasons.
"We've been extremely fortunate," said Lavallee. "The stars have to line up, and we've been fortunate enough to have that happen most years. This year is no different. The MPSF is a very competitive conference with Sac State and San Jose in there. Alaska's new facility has made a difference in their program, and they have become more competitive. Air Force recruits very good student-athletes, and you can never count out Seattle Pacific. So we have our hands full."
Despite the injuries, the 2017 Aggies are brimming with proven performers. Nogaki, a team co-captain along with fellow seniors Emma Hicks and Yonni Michovska, has a chance to become the first UC Davis gymnast to compete in four straight NCAA postseasons. Nogaki earned the postseason at-large berth on vault last season and was the alternate on beam behind teammates Stephanie Stamates and Alexis Brown. For her part, Michovska earned All-MPSF honors on bars after narrowly missing such plaudits the year before. She broke the 9.80 barrier twice last season and owned a strong final stretch on vault.
Overall, Brown led the team with three All-MPSF nods last season (vault, bars, beam), captured the conference bars title, and earned a spot at the Salt Lake City Regional in April. Incredibly, Brown appears primed to achieve even more in her third collegiate season. "Without question, Alexis Brown is in the best shape she has been in since coming to UC Davis. She did a really good job getting herself ready," Lavallee said.
Jones, an All-MPSF performer on vault as a freshman last year, has overhauled her uneven bars routine to the point that she will contend as one of the league's top all-arounders once she returns to full strength. Another sophomore, Yasmine Yektaparast, earned MPSF Newcomer of the Year distinction in 2016. She scored as high as 9.900 on floor in her rookie season, while providing scoring punch on vault and beam.
Holder enjoyed a breakout 2016 after an injury-plagued freshman season, hitting all three of her events in 11 straight meets and snaring all-conference accolades on floor. A third junior, Presswood, was a picture of consistency on floor, hitting 11 of 11 with seven routines of 9.80 or better. She made the All-MPSF first team on floor exercise and now looks to expand her repertoire into other lineups. She.
In fact, part of the excitement of any season, says Lavallee, comes from such athletes emerging within the program. The early-season injuries may provide windows of opportunity for other gymnasts to step up on events. "You don't know who will decide to be really good this year. We have a lot of people who will have opportunities to shine," he said.
As a freshman walk-on, Aya Suzuki worked her way into the bars lineup in the second half of 2016, only to finish the year with a season-best at the conference meet. She will see chances on balance beam. Jordan Helgesen (bars), Whitney Estrada (floor) and Hicks (floor) should see added opportunities in their final seasons. Rachel Kreager, yet another veteran sidelined by injury to start the year, looks to end her career on a high note. She had the memorable clutch 9.800 on beam at the 2014 MPSF meet, sat out the entire 2015 season due to injury, then suffered an untimely fall at Southern Utah last season. However, she rebounded with a 9.850 on beam in exhibition during the 2016 home finale.
Among the freshmen, Sarah Liddle should contribute as an all-arounder throughout her first season. The Modesto, California, native reached the Junior Olympics nationals for Airborne Gymnastics back in 2014, then switched to the same San Mateo Gymnastics club that produced fellow Aggies Michovska, Holder, Kreager and Suzuki. Susanna Iakounitcheva competed at Level 10 for Technique Gymnastics for three years, qualifying for the Region 1 meet in each of her last two and the J.O. Nationals last May. She will be a staple on beam in her first year, while adding support on bars.
While Lavallee will remain patient for the first few meets, he hopes to be in full strength by the January 21 road triangular at Arizona State, or certainly by the January 29 Causeway Classic dual with Sacramento State, the latter of which also features a reunion of 40 years of Aggie and Hornet gymnasts. That would give his team nine or even 10 meets to build its RQS, which determines the 36 teams advancing to the NCAAs. This is no different from any other year, or from most other teams, which is why getting to full strength by late January is far more important than rushing a team to the season opener.
UC Davis ranked 42nd last year with a 195.045 RQS, roughly one-third of a point from No. 36 Michigan State (195.385). Sacramento State missed the cut by .200 (195.185). Such a margin comes down to a total of three or four falls over the course of the season. Put another way, three falls adds up to 1.5 total points in deductions, which averages out to .300 when calculating the RQS. That shows how slim the margins can be. This may be suffering a few too many misses, or having the other teams avoid team. In fact, when the Aggies made the cut in 2014, it came from not counting a single fall in the last nine meets of the year.
"It's that close. Our goals, which remain consistent, still push us to reach our maximum potential. They don't get old," said Lavallee. "To accomplish our goals takes every bit of our energy and abilities."
SKIP SHOTS: UC Davis scored three of the 10 all-time top team scores in 2016, including a 196.025 in the March 11 home meet with Sacramento State and California... The Aggies also scored their No. 7 vault score (49.000), No. 7 bars score (48.950), No. 8 floor score (49.200) and five of its best beam marks at different times last season... New assistant coach Jessa Hansen inherits that beam squad from Annie DiLuzio, who left after just one season... Hansen was part of the staff that transformed Cal into a top 10 program, so Monday's NorCal Classic represents a reunion... She served under Golden Bears mentor Justin Howell from 2014-16... Katy Nogaki is one of five Aggies to compete at three different NCAA region meets, along with Tiana Montell, Katie Yamamura, Anna Shumaker and 2016 Cal Aggie Athletics Hall of Fame inductee Tanya Ho... Nogaki was part of the 2014 team that reached the Fayetteville Regional, then earned the at-large spot on vault in each of the last two seasons...
New athletics director Kevin Blue will be the honorary assistant coach at the January 13 home opener, which features Stanford, Boise State and Yale... Interim chancellor Ralph Hexter will assume such honors for the January 29 Causeway dual... The honorary assistant coach has not been finalized for the four remaining home meets (Feb. 17, Feb. 19, Feb. 24 and Mar. 10)... The January 13 meet will mark the first time UC Davis has faced Yale since the 1998 USAG Collegiate Nationals... John Lavallee served as an assistant for the Bulldogs for three years immediately before arriving to the UC Davis program in June 2006.