LSU is headed to Georgia on Friday for a Southeastern Conference gymnastics meet.
The Tigers are taking a suitcase full of subplots along with them.
First there’s the big one, which has No. 2 LSU (11-1, 5-0 SEC) needing a win to clinch at least a share of a second straight conference regular-season title.
Then there are the personal stories, like that of LSU freshman Sami Durante. She’s returning home to Athens, Georgia, where her mother Dana was fired as Georgia’s gymnastics coach after last season. Also heading back is Dana Durante’s predecessor, LSU associate head coach Jay Clark. He was head coach at Georgia from 2009-12, succeeding uber-successful Georgia coach Suzanne Yoculan Leebern.
Yoculan Leebern, who won 10 NCAA titles at Georgia, is back with the program. She is listed as a volunteer coach under head coach and former Georgia gymnast Courtney Kupets Carter, herself a two-time Olympic medalist in 2004 and nine-time NCAA event champion.
Asked if it would be interesting to see her old rival again on the floor at 6 p.m. Friday, LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux offered a tart reply.
“Not a bit,” she said with a sarcastic chuckle. “She never left as far as I was concerned.”
Sami Durante did.
“It was heartbreaking,” Durante said of leaving Athens. “I knew I had to make a decision quick so I couldn’t let it affect me that much. As soon as (my mom) got fired, I knew I didn’t want to go there anymore.”
Clark got in touch with the Durante family soon after Dana’s termination. Soon, Sami was on her way to visit LSU.
“I fell in love with it,” she said.
“I think it’s a great fit for her,” said Dana Durante, who attended Georgia’s 196.950-196.125 home loss last week against Florida, the first since her termination. She plans to be in the stands Friday night.
“She didn’t want to be too far away. She loves the SEC. She’s competitive and loved the idea of having to fight for a spot in the lineup and compete and fight for championships.”
Though a freshman, Durante has established herself, leading off LSU’s highly successful uneven bars program. The Tigers rank No. 2 nationally in that event, and are coming off a score of 49.725 on bars against TWU, a program record and the fifth-highest bars score in NCAA history.
“To replace (departed senior) Shae Zamardi and bring Sami in to fill that void was big,” said Clark, who coaches bars. “The other five were returning. The only real question mark we had was that one spot and who would provide us with more depth.”
Durante has three scores of 9.90 or better this season, including a career high 9.925 last Friday in the Mardi Gras Invitational in Missouri. She ranks 24th nationally on bars with a 9.856 average.
Durante admits to some nerves going back and performing at Georgia after all that’s happened, but she is determined not to let it overwhelm her routine.
“I’m excited,” she said. “Obviously there are a lot of outside factors. I just need to focus on my gymnastics and what I have to do to help this team and not worry about (that).”
Clark is making his fourth trip back to Georgia as an LSU assistant coach. Dredging up his career in Athens, where he was an assistant coach for 20 years before taking over the program in 2009, is something he’d rather not do. But Clark knows its part of the schedule every other year.
“It’s not as much of a big deal as it was once going back,” said Clark, a native of Roswell, Georgia. “I’m in my sixth year here now. I get why people still draw the connection, but at this point we’ve pretty much firmly established ourselves here at LSU. That’s where I would prefer the focus be, but I understand I can’t always control that.”
LSU is only 4-22 at Georgia, including a 197.500-196.800 loss there Feb. 13, 2016. Since then, the Tigers have won 15 straight SEC regular-season meets and posted 31 straight scores of 197 or better, the nation’s longest active streak.
LSU is also coming off back-to-back 198-plus scores last weekend for the first time in school history, a 198.075 in the Mardi Gras Invitational and a 198.175 at home against Texas Woman’s University. The Tigers’ score against TWU is the nation’s highest this season.
LSU is led by Temple, Georgia, native Myia Hambrick, a senior who ranks No. 1 nationally on floor exercise; and junior Sarah Finnegan, No. 3 nationally in the all-around. Georgia’s top gymnast is junior Sydney Snead, 20th nationally in the all-around and 26th on uneven bars.
Breaux wants her gymnasts and coaches to shut out the clutter and continue the string of what has been their best gymnastics this season.
“You can’t control the drama that has taken place prior to our competition,” she said. “You want your team to go in with the mindset that we’re Tigers and we’re going to do the things we’ve done all season long.”
Team SEC Pct. Overall Pct. High
LSU 5-0 1.000 11-1 .917 198.175
Florida 4-1 .800 6-1 .857 198.150
Alabama 4-2 .667 4-3 .571 197.075
Georgia 3-3 .500 3-4 .429 197.000
Kentucky 2-4 .333 5-4 .556 196.950
Arkansas 2-4 .333 2-7 .222 197.175
Auburn 1-4 .200 6-6 .500 197.000
Missouri 1-4 .200 3-5 .375 196.375
LSU at Georgia (6 p.m., SEC Network)
Arkansas at Florida, 5:45 p.m.
Missouri at Kentucky, 6 p.m.
Alabama at Auburn, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
All times Central