With LSU’s runner-up finish in the College World Series now in the history books, and coach Ed Orgeron and players’ appearance at Southeastern Conference football media days just a few days away, it’s time once again for our year-end look at the year in LSU athletics.
We’ll call it, The Rabbys.
OK, I’ll call it The Rabbys. You may have a different name for it. Just keep it clean.
Without further ado, let’s get to the best, the worst, the most infamous moments LSU’s 2016-17 athletic year:
The LSU baseball team is a strong candidate. The Tigers reached the College World Series finals, albeit losing for the first time, while sharing the Southeastern Conference regular-season title with Florida, winning the SEC tournament title yet again and finishing 52-20, the fourth 50-win season of Paul Mainieri’s tenure.
But we can’t forget baseball’s struggles through the first half of the season. That’s why our award to LSU’s best team goes to gymnastics.
From start to finish, these Tigers (34-2) were superb. Their only shortcoming was an inability to beat Oklahoma, which no one else in the country could do either. Along the way LSU made history, winning the inaugural SEC regular-season title, its first SEC championship meet title since 1981 and finishing runner-up to the Sooners for the second straight year.
LSU was brilliant in the NCAA championship semifinals with a score of 198.275, the Tigers’ highest score in any NCAA meet. They couldn’t duplicate it in the Super Six the following night, posting a 197.7375 to Oklahoma’s 198.375, though LSU’s score would have been good enough to beat the Sooners the year before.
LSU seniors Ashleigh Gnat, Sydney Ewing and Shae Zamardi never lost a meet at home. That’s dominances. That’s excellence. For gymnastics there’s only one step left to take, and that one seems inevitable.
BEST PROMISE KEPT
Just before LSU left to begin a series in late April at Alabama, Kramer Robertson had his Tim Tebow moment.
Unlike Tebow, it didn’t result in a national title. But it was oh so close, and clearly a catalyst for LSU’s deepest run in the CWS since winning the event in 2009.
“Let’s call a spade a spade,” Robertson said then. “I haven’t performed in conference the way that I should. I think that’s having a lot to do with us struggling. I understand it’s a team sport, but when you see yourself as a senior leader, when he sucks, it rubs off on the whole team.
“Put this on me. I need to play better and get my act together. When I do that, I think it’s going to rub off on the whole team.”
Kramer may have struggled to find the holes in Omaha, and his blonde dyed hair was a fashion nightmare (even he hated it). But LSU wouldn’t have been in the CWS without his leadership and his play.
The Tigers came up two wins short, but we consider this a promise kept.
The Tigers were broken down on the side of the road with their blinkers on after a 13-1 drubbing by Oregon State, a team being discussed as the greatest of all time. But facing elimination not once but three times, LSU came back to beat Florida State 7-4 then shocked Oregon State 3-1 and 6-1 behind bookend brilliant pitching performances from Alex Lange and Caleb Gilbert.
Sticking to the fastballs more than three out of every four pitches, Lange and Gilbert threw back-to-back starts of 7.1 innings with a run and two hits allowed to the Beavers. The wins propelled the Tigers to the CWS finals against Florida. While LSU came up short of winning, what they did to get there deserves some sort of special place in the heart of its fans.
One is tempted to pick Derrius Guice, LSU’s tailback who capably filled the void left by Leonard Fournette last season with 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns rushing. Entering 2017, Guice is on pace to shatter the school record for yards per carry, averaging an astounding 7.8 yards per carry as a freshman and sophomore.
But it’s back to gymnastics we go and Gnat, who won the AAI award as the nation’s best senior gymnast. She won the NCAA individual floor title and had an SEC championship meet for the ages with titles in vault, beam and floor. She finished her career with nine perfect 10s, tying Jennifer Wood for the most in program history. And now she’s set to join the gymnastics program as a graduate assistant.
BEST UNSUNG HERO
To Coach O goes the spoils of being LSU’s football coach and all the riches therein. He earned the job by changing the culture of the entire program in a hundred different ways, but one of his first decisions was his best.
Upon being named LSU’s interim coach after Les Miles was fired in December, Orgeron named tight ends coach Steve Ensminger as his offensive coordinator. Ensminger enlivened LSU’s offense, which scored 38 points or more five times in eight games. There were clunkers — a 10-0 loss to Alabama and a 16-10 loss to Florida in which Guice was stopped at the 1 on the game’s final play — but overall the offense was a vast improvement on the predictable scale.
Ensminger goes back to being LSU’s tight ends coach under new offensive coordinator Matt Canada. But it’s arguable that Canada wouldn’t have his job if it weren’t for the play calling that Ensminger did.
The same goes for Orgeron.
BUSIEST EJECTOR SEAT
That would be the one in athletic director Joe Alleva’s office, as in 2016-17 he jettisoned Miles, men’s basketball coach Johnny Jones and men’s tennis coach Jeff Brown.
That’s a whole lot of firing for one year, especially high-profile ones. It’s the first time in decades that LSU fired its football and basketball coaches in the same athletic year.
Alleva inherited Miles and Brown, and host of other LSU coaches who have performed well or poorly. He hired Jones and is now on men’s coach No. 3 after the earlier departure of Trent Johnson. Will Wade is on a superb recruiting spree since becoming LSU’s coach, but the fact remains it’s been a highly volatile year on the coaching front.
LSU definitely needs more stability in 2017-18.