FORT WORTH, Texas — The LSU gymnastics team’s latest trip to the Fort Worth Convention Center had more than a passing resemblance to its previous one.
And that wasn’t a good thing.
The sixth-ranked Tigers’ bid for their first Metroplex Challenge championship was derailed on the balance beam — the same apparatus that wrecked their NCAA title hopes in the same building in April.
On Saturday night, falls from the beam by freshman ace Sarah Finnegan and junior Sydney Ewing put the Tigers in a hole they couldn’t climb out of. LSU wound up second in the five-team field with a score of 196.75, behind the 197.550 of No. 2 Oklahoma, which the Tigers defeated at home in their season opener.
But unlike the NCAA meet, when the Tigers crumbled following a series of falls and wobbles in the beam, Saturday’s performance was anything but a disaster. On the contrary, LSU coach D-D Breaux came away with a smile on her face, thrilled by the way her young team rebounded from its errors.
LSU followed the beam with its two strongest rotations of the night, scoring 49.375 in the floor exercise and a season-best 49.45 on the vault.
“When you have two falls, you’ve dug a hole,” Breaux said. “This place and the NCAA were in our heads a little bit. We got a little slack, but we picked up momentum in the last two events and did spectacular. This was a big learning experience for us. Now we know what we have to do. It’s the turning point of our season.”
The key to LSU’s comeback was junior Ashleigh Gnat, who righted the ship with a powerful 9.925 as the Tigers’ final performer on the beam. That matched Stanford’s Ivana Hong for the night’s best score in the event — but it was only the beginning of Gnat’s spectacular night.
The LSU junior added a 9.90 on the floor exercise to tie for second behind Oklahoma’s Charity Jones (9.5), then wowed the fans — and the judges — with her double-twisting Yurchenko vault, earning a perfect 10.0, her second in the event in as many weeks.
“The transition from sophomore to junior has been huge for me personally, just figuring out the role the team needs me to be in,” she said.
Gnat, who is ranked No. 1 in the nation in the vault, was the only gymnast to win two individual titles Saturday. She finished third in the all-around competition at 39.55, barely behind Stanford’s Elizabeth Price (39.6) and Oklahoma’s Chase Capps (39.575).
But more than that, her steely confidence on the beam in the wake of the miscues calmed the Tigers’ frayed nerves and put the team back on track.
It was all the more impressive because Gnat was one of the gymnasts who fell off the beam at the NCAA meet last year.
“That’s hard to forget,” she said. “Being put in that position was something we’ve faced before, and what happened in the past year has prepared us to really make the most of things after a fall. We have to get back up and brush ourselves off. This team tonight showed tremendous fight. The energy we showed after that was really amazing.”
Indeed, Gnat wasn’t the only one to come up big after the Tigers’ struggles on the beam. Finnegan, showing resilience as a freshman competing in the all-around for the first time in a collegiate meet, rallied for a 9.9 on the floor to tie Gnat and Oklahoma’s AJ Jackson and Haley Scaman for second.
Breaux called Finnegan’s fall “uncharacteristic” and said she caught her toe on the beam during the opening turn of her routine. Finnegan, who entered the night ranked fourth nationally in the beam, shrugged it off.
“The coaches said, ‘Hey, it’s not the end of the world’ and reminded me we still had two events to go and I needed to pick it back up,” said Finnegan, who also opened with a 9.9 on the uneven bars. “I think I did that and finished strong.”
Washington, the only unranked team in the field, finished third with a score of 196.175, followed by No. 12 Stanford at 196.075 and No. 16 Missouri at 195.825.