On the staircase leading up to the second-floor observation deck at the opulent LSU gymnastics practice facility, a new trophy display is in place.
This program has plenty to display. Among other things, there are LSU’s two NCAA runner-up trophies from the past two seasons, as well as the Tigers’ Southeastern Conference regular-season and championship meet trophies from 2017.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” LSU coach D-D Breaux asks.
The top shelf is notably bare by design. Has Breaux pointed that out to her gymnasts?
“They’ll figure it out,” she said. “They’re pretty smart.”
The symbolism could not be more clear. As you climb the stairs, there is only one thing left to do:
Fill the top shelf with the only important hardware not in LSU’s possession.
A national championship trophy.
D-D Breaux doesn’t know how Friday night will go.
The Tigers were oh-so-close to capturing their first title last April in St. Louis. In the NCAA Championship semifinals, LSU posted the night’s best score and the team’s best score of the season, a 198.275.
The Tigers won three NCAA individual championships — Ashleigh Gnat on floor, Kennedi Edney on vault and Sarah Finnegan on uneven bars. But they could not sustain that level of performance the following night in the Super Six. LSU fell behind quickly against Oklahoma, the only team LSU didn’t beat in 2017, posting a score of 197.7375 to the Sooners’ 198.3875.
There were tears for LSU when it was done, but there was pride as well. And, perhaps, a bit of frustration: LSU’s 197.7375 would have beaten Oklahoma’s winning score in 2016.
This year's LSU team opens its season ranked No. 3 in the nation behind Oklahoma again and Southeastern Conference rival Florida. To be honest, the Gators, with reigning NCAA All-Around champion Alex McMurtry leading the way, are the team to beat in the SEC this season. LSU opens at home Friday against No. 19 Arkansas, but a trip to Gainesville on Jan. 12 will be a huge threat to the Tigers’ 10-match SEC winning streak that stretches to 2016.
That "perfect" gymnast — Gnat — is gone, and with her the nine perfect 10s from her glittering four-year LSU career. She is an LSU student assistant now. Also done are two other seniors, Lafayette’s Sydney Ewing and Shae Zamardi. In an unexpected and unwelcome preseason blow, LSU also lost junior McKenna Kelley for the season with a torn Achilles tendon.
“At some point every team is going to go through adversity,” Finnegan said. “We went through ours in the preseason. Everyone is working their tails off. Everyone wants to earn that spot to help the team.”
To be honest, the Tigers should be ferocious in 2019 when Kelley returns and gymnasts like Finnegan and talented-but-often-injured Lexie Priessman are seniors. But there is this season to compete in — and even without four major contributors from 2017, expectations will be sky-high for LSU once again.
Success breeds success, but it also breeds even higher expectations. While LSU was deservedly lauded for its 2017 season, breaking through to win its first SEC titles since 1981, only a national championship trophy will bring that same level of acclaim going forward.
Breaux accepts the pressure with the praise.
“The more you have,” she said, “the more you want.”
The Tigers know they have to turn adversity into opportunity. Kelley not competing this season and three starters gone means more chances for other gymnasts to perform.
Myia Hambrick doesn’t like the term “senior leader.”
“We have seven freshmen coming in and people who didn’t contribute last year who are coming along,” said Myia Hambrick, a 12-time All-American and one of LSU’s three seniors for this season. “It’s great to have people left (who can’t compete) who are doing well.”
Because of its youth and subsequent growing up that needs to be done by this LSU team, don’t expect the Tigers to throw a 198-plus score at Arkansas on Friday night. Don’t be surprised if they come up just short at Florida, either. If the Tigers stay healthy, this should be a better team at season’s end than at the beginning.
Not that the beginning should be bad.
“This is definitely a team that will develop as the season progresses,” Hambrick said. “That’s a good thing. You don’t want to be at your best in January.”
That’s for certain.
January isn’t the time for filling that top shelf in the trophy case, but for laying the groundwork.