Chris Waller knew his first year as a head coach wasn’t going to be completely smooth. He knew there would be falls, injuries and, after a wholesale coaching change, a new foundation to build under one of UCLA’s most popular programs.
He didn’t know there would be a global pandemic.
Facing a stunning end to its season, as the NCAA canceled all winter and spring championships Thursday due to the coronavirus outbreak, the Bruins leaned on the strong foundation Waller reinforced during his shortened first season at the helm of the UCLA gymnastics program.
“When they look back on this year, I know they will look back in amazement in what they were able to achieve,” Waller said in a conference call Thursday. “When you think about the fact that I was brand new, first-time head coach, there was a whole new coaching staff, there were a lot of question marks about where our program would go. And we just kept getting better. …
“We’ve been champions on many levels and we’ve achieved the ultimate goal, which is build something really special.”
The No. 3 Bruins finished the year ranked in the top five nationally on all four events, including first on floor exercise. They were one of just four teams to break the 198-point mark this season, hoping to carry late-season momentum into the postseason. They were meant to host the NCAA regional from April 2-4, the first postseason meet at Pauley Pavilion since 2013.
It all stopped suddenly this week. The team learned Tuesday that fans would not be allowed at the final regular-season meet on Saturday. Its opponent, Bridgeport, dropped out Wednesday. By Thursday morning, the regular season and the Pac-12 championships were gone completely when the conference canceled all competitions. Four hours later, the whole season was over, per NCAA mandate.
The team was together when it heard of the Pac-12’s decision. Some gymnasts were numb, Waller said. Others cried. Others didn’t even know what to make of the news.
They planned to meet again Friday morning.
“What’s important for us moving forward in the next few weeks is that all of us stay connected,” Waller said.
Waller, a long-time assistant before ascending to the head coaching position this season, helped the program navigate a new era without former head coach Valorie Kondos Field. With a completely new staff of assistants around him, Waller’s transition to the top job appeared seamless.
“Becoming a head coach is probably a pretty scary role to take on, but you’ve been nothing but an amazing coach, leader and second dad,” sophomore Norah Flatley wrote on Instagram in a post thanking Waller. “Your fierce competitiveness and compassion is inspirational. Looking forward to the future.”
UCLA moves forward without its influential senior class. Kyla Ross, Madison Kocian, Felicia Hano, Macy Toronjo, Mercedez Sanchez, Anna and Grace Glenn, Nicki Shapiro and Gracie Kramer will miss their traditional senior farewell.
“Thank you gymnastics,” Hano wrote on Twitter. “for everything.”
thank you gymnastics. for everything.— Felicia Hano (@fish_hano) March 12, 2020
The team still hopes to honor its nine seniors in the future with an event at Pauley Pavilion. Waller, still riding the emotional roller coaster week, couldn’t imagine exactly what the event would look like.
But he knew it would be “incredible and unique and inspiring.”