The concern in D-D Breaux’s voice came through the phone like an alarm bell.
Her 2018 team had already lost three seniors from 2017, including NCAA floor champion Ashleigh Gnat. The gymnast who was supposed to take her place in the anchor floor role, junior McKenna Kelley, had just ruptured her Achilles’ tendon and would be lost for the season, which was starting in just six weeks.
“Our team has been on a roll for five years,” Breaux said in November. “Now we’re going to see what we’re made of.”
Nearly five months later, the entire women’s gymnastics world sees an LSU team that basically, to this point, has repeated its successes of 2017 — undefeated run to the Southeastern Conference regular-season championship, SEC Championship meet title, NCAA regional title, and No. 2 national ranking.
Though the team’s actual season average is a tick lower than it was in 2017 — 197.744 to 197.587 — LSU’s RQS (Regional Qualifying Score) and season highs are both slightly higher: 197.890 to 197.865 (RQS) and 198.175 to 198.150 (season high) heading into the NCAA Championship meet Friday and Saturday in St. Louis.
How was this possible without Gnat and other departed seniors Sydney Ewing and Shae Zamardi, both steady contributors in 2017? How was it possible without Kelley, the 2017 SEC floor champion, who was expected to compete in at least two other events?
For senior Myia Hambrick, there simply was no other choice.
“You have to,” she said. “She went down in November, and people who weren’t maybe pushing themselves as hard as they could have, maybe everybody, something shifted a little bit in everyone’s minds. We were like, ‘OK, we need to step it up a little bit.’ Even myself. Everybody took it that one step further. That set us on a good path for the season.”
An event here. A routine there. Someone, or someones, had to find ways to fill the holes left by Gnat, Ewing, Zamardi and Kelley.
To junior Lexie Priessman, the biggest key has been the group that going into the season was LSU’s biggest unknown: the Tigers’ seven freshmen. Two of them, Christina Desiderio (beam, floor) and Sarah Edwards (vault, floor), earned All-SEC honors. Sami Durante, LSU’s lead-off performer on vault, made the SEC All-Freshman team. Another freshman, Reagan Campbell, has competed on beam in all but one meet.
“Our freshman class is absolutely amazing,” Priessman said. “They came in a little questionable in some areas, but the coaches spoke to them and they got their stuff together.
“I have 100 percent confidence in them in their ability to go out there and do what they train doing every day.”
“It shows the depth we have on this team,” said junior Sarah Finnegan, the SEC gymnast of the year. “We always say when one person goes down the next person is up. Everyone stepped up their game and did the best they could. They worked even harder in the gym, worked to improve and take up that spot. I’m proud of how everyone stepped it up to be there for the team.”
After two straight NCAA runner-up finishes, there is only one more step to take.
“The only forward step is first place,” Hambrick said.
“I think this team is ready and hungry to do its gymnastics.”
Whether they can finally win that elusive NCAA title or not, the Tigers have already proven what they’re made of.
THE PRIESSMAN WATCH: LSU’s coaches have been keeping close tabs on Priessman’s shoulder, which has bothered her in recent weeks. Priessman said Monday she got an injection April 9 and is “in a really good spot physically.”
“I want to compete as much as I can,” she said. “But at the same time I know for nationals what is most important. Floor and bars is where I want to compete the most.”
Priessman has battled injuries since her junior career and has had at least eight gymnastics-related surgeries on her shoulders, ankle, wrist and even a big toe.
Breaux said she believes Priessman is “in a great place” heading into the national meet and will allow her to warm up on vault to see if she can add her considerable talents to that event while competing on floor and bars.
“She’ll warm up on vaulting and see how her shoulder holds up,” Breaux said. “The two events we need her on the most, she’s giving all she’s got.”