LSU gymnastics team digs deep, blows past Georgia _lowres

Advocate file photo by HILARY SCHEINUK -- Record crowds saw LSU’s gymnastics team perform last season. The Tigers host No. 1 Oklahoma to open the season Saturday.

Sixteen gymnasts gather near the entrance of their world-class practice facility that is still under construction, carrying highlighted papers summarizing “The Hard Hat.” It’s time for LSU gymnastics book club, a tradition that’s been in place since senior Jessica Savona came to campus.

“Very refreshing,” coach D-D Breaux says, monitoring the discussion. “Notice: Nobody’s looking at their phones.”

Jon Gordon’s book, which promises its readers 21 lessons to be a great teammate, tells the story of George Boiardi — a former Cornell lacrosse player who died in 2004 after a ball hit him in the chest during a game. Savona and others discuss the lessons Gordon pens and George created in carefree tones. Laughter comes at inside jokes, and soon the group is anticipating the pajama party at assistant coach Jay Clark’s home a few hours later.

“I’ve never seen 16 girls just come together and really, genuinely love each other and connect with each other the way that we all connect,” junior Ashleigh Gnat says.

“We’ve always been close to each other with all the other classes, don’t get me wrong,” Savona adds. “But this year is different.”

What isn’t different? The Tigers have abandoned the cramped, outdated Carl Maddox Field House for their new training facility that will hold a grand opening on Feb. 6.

Twenty-three-time All-American Rheagan Courville, perhaps the greatest gymnast to ever wear an LSU leotard, is gone to graduation. So is Jessie Jordan, a stoic, unwavering all-arounder whom most inside the program considered the rock of last year’s team.

And when this new look team opens its season Saturday against No. 1 Oklahoma in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, the meet will not end with Lloimincia Hall’s floor routine that attracted international attention, got seven perfect 10s and kept overflow crowds howling in appreciation.

“But we’re 2016,” Savona says. “We’re LSU gymnastics 2016. We’re not the same team, but in a good way.”

All-Around effort

Clark has been in this position.

A longtime Georgia assistant and later three-year head coach of the Gym Dogs (2009-2012), Clark’s first season in charge came as Georgia tried to win its sixth straight national title.

It was also the first season without stalwart all-arounders Tiffany Tolnay and Courtney Kupets — a silver and bronze medalist at the 2004 Olympics and three-time NCAA all-around champion who scored a 10.0 on every apparatus in 2009.

“The best 1-2 punch probably in the history of our sport to this point,” Clark says. “That was like Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen leaving the room, and you were left with role players.”

“We still had some names there, but they weren’t people even capable of doing the all-around at that stage in their careers.”

There’s no such quandary this season. Sure, Clark says, it was obvious to everyone last season Courville and Jordan would compete the all-around in LSU’s biggest meets, but the work of upperclassmen toiling behind the scenes, along with the maturation of Myia Hambrick and Sarah Finnegan, leave the Tigers’ all-around spots in capable hands.

Gnat won two all-around titles last season and finished the season as the No. 13 ranked all-arounder in the country as a capable fill-in when the Tigers rested Courville or Jordan.

Savona, a mainstay on floor and bars throughout her career, is finding consistency on balance beam to nudge her way into the all-around discussion. Hambrick won the SEC vault title in her freshman season and now is poised to make the transition to a reliable all-arounder with a more vivacious personality on floor.

Then there’s Sarah Finnegan, an alternate on the gold-medal winning 2012 Olympic Team — the “Fierce Five” — whom Marta Karolyi called a “world-class talent.” Clark raves about her bars and beam sets, saying they’ll be counted on from the start of the season. Breaux has also praised fellow freshmen Lexi Priessman and McKenna Kelley — specifically their tumbling.

“It’s not only the freshmen, and we’re all working together,” Gnat says. “It’s not a big-shoes-to-fill idea. They have so much talent and so much to offer to this team. I think they’re going to continue to grow as the season goes on, and as the season goes on, we’re going to see a lot more of them in the lineup.”

A different group

The group message started around two years ago. It’s about the same time this group of freshman that recently became the first No. 1 recruiting class in program history gave their commitments to Clark and Breaux.

Since then, Kelley, Priessman, Finnegan, Juliana Cannamela and Kaitlyn Szafranski did what most new friends do: text. The action itself is almost expected of any group of teenage girls, but it’s a personification of Clark’s recruiting message and, he thinks, the onus for the strongest team chemistry he’s seen in his four seasons in Baton Rouge.

“If you don’t want to be part of a team that wants to treat each other like family and that’s going to push each other and hold each other accountable with the goal in mind of winning championships, maybe LSU’s not the place for you,” Clark tells recruits.

“They’re compliant, and they want to be the best gymnastics team they can be,” Breaux adds. “They want to be in the community. They want to do community service. They want to be the best academic team on campus.”

Book clubs are longer now. Conversation begins to stray away from the book itself and more to applying Gordon’s message inside the facility, where three legends may be absent, but others wait to carry on their prestige.

“They’ve done so much for the program that we can’t ignore that,” Savona said. “The talent on this team is so extreme and unbelievable. Seeing what our underclassmen can do. Seeing what the freshmen and sophomores have to give to the table, they are very much so capable of doing what the other girls did.”