JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As Lexie Priessman packed up to head home from the SEC gymnastics championship meet, she grabbed one of those big, round, yellow-and-blue Southeastern Conference logo signs that helped decorate Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena.
And why not? As Priessman and the Tigers proved again Saturday night, they owned this conference this season. They took all the trophies, they took all the individual titles (at least a share of them) — and they took the decorations, too.
A perfect 7-0 dual-meet record brought LSU the inaugural SEC regular-season championship. The Tigers got the trophy for that at practice here Friday and carried it all the way to celebrate with in the surf at Jacksonville Beach.
The championship meet gave LSU an historic sweep. The Tigers posted a school record score in this event, a 198.075 to hold off their biggest challengers, Florida (197.825) and Alabama (197.400).
Afterward, there was the appropriate amount of celebrating on LSU’s part: cradling the trophy, mugging for cameras, hugging and dancing as SEC-colored confetti rained down on them. Considering the Tigers hadn’t won the SEC championship since 1981 — claiming the very first one, which was contested in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center, long before these Tigers were born — it would be human if they wanted to do a little laurel resting at this point.
Not a chance. If there’s anything this season has convinced these LSU gymnasts of, it's that they’re in the midst of something special. That they have the talent and ambition to go all the way: win their NCAA regional in two weeks, reach the Super Six and win the championship after finishing second to Oklahoma last year.
Greed, as the Tigers will happily tell you, is good.
“Absolutely,” said McKenna Kelley, who shared the SEC individual floor championship with teammate Ashleigh Gnat and two gymnasts from Florida with a 9.95. “We want to win it all. I think any athlete wants to win it all. That’s what’s so great about LSU and our team and our coaches. We have that drive and kind of that swagger to us that we want to go out there and represent what’s best for our school.”
Without a doubt, LSU has been the best team in the SEC this year, perennially viewed as the nation’s best conference. All four teams in Saturday’s evening session were ranked in the top eight nationally: No. 2 LSU, No. 4 Florida, No. 6 Alabama and No. 8 Georgia.
Last year, LSU entered this event with the SEC’s best dual-meet record but got off to a wobbly start on the uneven bars and never recovered, finishing third behind Florida and Alabama.
This time, LSU started strong on vault and hammered its way through its best event (the Tigers lead the NCAA in vault average), counting nothing lower than 9.85s by Sydney Ewing and Kennedi Edney. Gnat sent a message by anchoring the routine with the meet’s only perfect 10, giving LSU a two-tenths-of-a-point lead on Florida it would maintain the rest of the night.
“It was a team effort to win the SEC championship,” said coach D-D Breaux, enjoying her finest year in what is her 40th season with the Tigers. “It’s a tough, tough meet. It’s fast and it’s hard, and you’ve got to get momentum going. That’s exactly what this team established: good momentum.”
No one established and sustained LSU’s effort better than Gnat. Performing for the last time in her home state, with about 30 family and friends having made the trek from Orlando to see her, the senior put on a dazzling show. She won or shared SEC titles in all three events she competed in, adding ties for first on beam and floor to her perfect score on vault.
Gnat now has 60 individual titles in her career, including four SEC championships.
“I knew with every event came a challenge,” she said. “We knew we were in a tight spot. Being part of this meet is applying the pressure and being able to perform under that. My main focus was being able to contribute to the team in the way I needed to.”
The only thing that could have made the Tigers' season better to this point was knowing they were going home to host an NCAA regional in two weeks — one last chance to glitter in front of the home folks in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.
As it is, the No. 2 Tigers will find out shortly after 3 p.m. Monday where they’re headed for one of the six regionals around the country. By the numbers, LSU should go to Lincoln, Nebraska, based on the S-curve with the No. 2 team (LSU) being in the same column as the No. 14 team (Nebraska), but geography and conference affiliations could play a part.
Wherever LSU goes, the Tigers will be the No. 1 seed and the favorite. The top two teams in each regional advance to the NCAA championships.
“For the NCAAs, I think this is going to be a confidence booster,” Breaux said of the SEC meet. “That’s a great field of competition. For these kids to have the ice water in their veins that they had in this competition speaks volumes for how tough they are.”
And how tough they will be to beat.
NCAA women’s gymnastics selection show
When: 3 p.m. Monday
NCAA gymnastics championships schedule
Regional sites (April 1)
Champaign, Illinois; Fayetteville, Arkansas; Gainesville, Florida; Lincoln, Nebraska; Morgantown, West Virginia; Seattle
Six teams plus unattached individual gymnasts are assigned to each regional. Top three in each regional are seeded by season-long Regional Qualifying Score (RQS). Bottom three in each regional are seeded with consideration to conference affiliations, geography.
How to advance: The top two teams from each regional plus a selection of individual gymnasts advance to NCAA championships, set for April 14-15 in St. Louis. The top six teams April 14 advance to Super Six on April 15, from which the NCAA team champion will be crowned.
NCAA top 10
Team RQS High score
1. Oklahoma 198.010 198.350
2. LSU 197.865 198.150
3. Florida 197.635 197.975
4. Utah 197.550 197.925
5. UCLA 197.500 198.125
6. Alabama 197.355 197.825
7. Michigan 197.135 197.825
8. Oregon St. 197.115 197.475
9. Denver 197.040 197.150
10. Georgia 197.005 197.325