NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — They were good enough to win it.
The LSU gymnastics team knew that going into Saturday’s Southeastern Conference championship meet. The Tigers know it now, even after a third-place finish behind Florida and Alabama left every member of the LSU contingent packing frustration and disappointment into their bags with the leotards and glitter.
Frankly, those emotions have been part of LSU’s manifest for a long time in the SEC championship. The Tigers haven’t won the meet since the very first one way back in 1981.
But building toward an SEC title will again have to wait until next year. For now, the Tigers have to channel their disappointment into more satisfying showings in next month’s NCAA regionals and NCAA championship.
“Being in this conference is tough,” said Ashleigh Gnat, who gave LSU its biggest highlight with an SEC title-winning 10 on floor, her sixth perfect score this season. “We like that. We like that it mimics almost a national championship. It was a good way to kick it off, and we’re only going to move forward.”
It’s worth taking stock at this point of the major holes this LSU team had to fill after losing a trio of high-scoring seniors from last year: Rheagan Courville, Lloimincia Hall and Jesse Jordan. Coach D-D Breaux and her staff brought in one of the program’s most talented recruiting class ever with the likes of Sarah Finnegan, McKenna Kelley and Lexie Priesmann, but expecting freshmen to perform like seniors is often a fool’s errand.
Still, they did do exceptionally well this season, though Priesmann only recently returned to the lineup after missing most of 2016 with an ankle injury and is currently limited to just performing on uneven bars. Breaux has argued that Finnegan may be the nation’s best freshman, and Kelley has been a strong performer on floor, tying her career best Saturday with a 9.925.
Finnegan slipped and fell trying to swing onto the high bar near the end of her routine Saturday, setting an ominous tone for an LSU team that turned in a break-marred performance en route to a score of 197.500. Priessman had a 9.800 on bars, a very good score but not great, and one that belied the Tigers’ four straight scores of 197.825 entering the meet. Another freshman, Julianna Cannamela, was one of the Tigers who had a big wobble on balance beam.
The SEC championship can be a whirlwind, with four teams competing simultaneously, and a difficult atmosphere in which to concentrate. Despite that, Breaux dismissed the notion that it had a negative impact on her freshmen, who helped score a 198.100 in LSU’s pre-SEC intrasquad meet to only deepen the Tigers’ frustration.
“Our freshmen have competed internationally,” she said. “You can’t explain how or why.”
To support Breaux’s point, Finnegan came back from her busted bars routine to post a career high-tying 9.925 on beam.
It’s that kind of comeback the Tigers now need to execute in the NCAA championships.
“It’s not the end of the world,” senior Jessica Savona said of LSU’s SEC showing. “It’s not world hunger. We were very well prepared for this meet. It’s going to light a fire under us, make us want to work harder in the gym.
“We’re a very good, talented team. We’re a little disappointed because we didn’t do our gymnastics to our top potential, myself included. It’s just something we have to work a little bit harder for in the gym and give it all we have for nationals.”
LSU still has a lot going for it. The Tigers were ranked No. 3 going into SECs and are a virtual lock to be a No. 1 seed when the NCAA’s six regional fields are announced at 3 p.m. Monday on NCAA.com. Despite finishing behind Florida and Bama on Saturday, LSU can draw on the fact that it beat the Gators and Crimson Tide during the regular season — handing Florida its first regular-season home loss since 2008 — and also toppling No. 1 Oklahoma to start the season.
Breaux’s optimism, expectations — and temper — are still running high.
“This team is resilient,” she said. “They’re embarrassed. I know they’re disappointed. The coaching staff is angry and we need to get back in the gym and not do anything differently.”
A talented LSU team rallying around a cause could be a formidable challenge for the rest of the nation to deal with.
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.