It’ll be a big night Friday for the LSU Tigers from Lee’s Summit, Missouri.
Most eyes will be on pitcher Alex Lange as he takes the mound in Alex Box Stadium against Air Force for the opener of a highly anticipated season.
About 700 miles away, just north of St. Louis in St. Charles, Missouri, Sarah Finnegan will fly through the air with the greatest of ease for LSU’s No. 2-ranked gymnastics team in the four-team Mardi Gras Invitational meet that includes a showdown against No. 1 Oklahoma.
Though she now lives across the state just outside Kansas City, St. Louis is really home to Finnegan. She grew up there, still has family and friends there. It’ll be a reunion of sorts. Even her sister, Hannah, will be there, a volunteer coach for Missouri which will also be competing along with Georgia.
Whether their father, Don Finnegan, can be there is up to debate. Finnegan has spent weeks in a hospital in St. Louis battling an illness. Sarah hoped her father would be discharged this week, but there was no guarantee he could attend the meet.
Worrying about her father has made things difficult. After LSU won at Kentucky on Jan. 27, Finnegan flew first to St. Louis to see her father before returning to Baton Rouge.
“It’s been hard, but I know how to separate it from my gymnastics and focus on what I’m supposed to be doing in the gym,” Finnegan said.
“But,” she repeats for emphasis, “it’s been hard.”
Like a lot of athletes with personal issues crowding into their sporting life, Finnegan finds relief on the devilish, four-inch wide balance beam and the tricky uneven bars, events she competed in for LSU last week in a win at Arkansas.
“It’s been a good distraction to get my mind focused on something else,” the sophomore Finnegan said. “I know (my father) wouldn’t want me to be sad. He’d want me to be focused on what I’m doing in the gym.”
Like father, like daughter, when it comes to athletic ability. Don Finnegan was an All-American wrestler at Iowa State. Sarah earned three All-America honors last season on bars and beam.
Sarah parlayed her lineage into some big-time gymnastics growing up. She was an alternate for the 2012 U.S. Olympic gymnastics team, catching the eye of legendary coach Marta Karolyi.
Karolyi, who retired as U.S. national team coordinator after the 2016 Olympics, praised Finnegan then as a “world-class gymnast. (She) has the international look. She still has to get a tiny bit sturdier.”
Karolyi’s words proved to be painfully prophetic. She missed the entire 2013 club season with an elbow injury. Last year as a highly touted freshman at LSU, she was limited in what she could compete in because of an ankle injury. That ankle limits her still midway through the 2017 season. LSU coach D-D Breaux said Monday her goal is still to get Finnegan back competing on floor along with her two current events.
Finnegan wants to be on vault as well.
“(My ankle) started hurting me again this year, but we’ve managed it well,” she said. “I’m going to slowly go back into vault and floor, build that back up.”
Compared to burly football players or towering basketball players, gymnasts seem like fragile china dolls out there competing. Truth is, theirs is a physically demanding sport that constantly tests their toughness.
Mentally and physically, Finnegan has passed those tests. Now she and the undefeated Tigers (6-0, 5-0 Southeastern Conference) face their biggest test against the Sooners, the team that edged them out for the NCAA championship in April in Fort Worth, Texas.
“We’re ranked No. 2 for a reason,” Finnegan said. “Our gymnastics is just as good as theirs. Our form is up there. I think we just need to not focus on any of the other teams but just on each other and hitting and doing what we do.”
If any of her teammates need help with their focus, to block out the pain and the worry and the people they want to please in the stands, Finnegan can show them.
TEAM SEC PCT. OVERALL PCT. HIGH
LSU 5-0 1.000 6-0 1.000 197.825
Florida 3-1 .750 5-1 .833 197.925
Georgia 4-2 .667 5-2 .714 197.075
Kentucky 2-3 .400 4-3 .571 197.425
Alabama 2-3 .400 3-4 .429 197.825
Arkansas 2-3 .400 2-4 .333 196.375
Missouri 1-3 .250 8-3 .727 196.225
Auburn 0-4 .000 0-7 .000 196.400
LSU at Mardi Gras Invitational (Georgia, Missouri, Oklahoma), 7:30 p.m.*
Florida at Arkansas, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)
Auburn at Alabama, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
George Washington/Iowa at LSU, 2:30 p.m. (SECNetwork+)
Kentucky/Penn/William & Mary at Maryland, 1 p.m.
*-at St. Charles, Missouri