The last time LSU won the Southeastern Conference gymnastics championship, Ronald Reagan was president, the Tigers held some of their meets in Carl Maddox Field House and NCAA-sanctioned women’s athletics had yet to replace an organization called AIAW.
To LSU’s current gymnasts, it must seem like ancient mythology.
“It would be really cool to win SECs for the first time in — how many — 35 years?” sophomore Myia Hambrick said. “None of us were alive or even thought about at that time, so it would be awesome.”
Since 1981, LSU has come awesomely, painfully close to the title, finishing as runner-up in 1990, 1995, 2000, 2005 and again in 2015, finishing 0.75 behind Alabama.
“It just wasn’t our time to win it,” said LSU coach D-D Breaux, who is in the midst of her 39th season. “Alabama outscored us on our last event.”
This year, the competition will again be fierce. All eight SEC teams are ranked in the top 22 nationally, with the champion likely to be decided in Saturday evening’s rotation involving No. 2 Florida, No. 3 LSU and No. 4 Alabama.
Breaux knows her team can perform well and not win — as was the case last year, when it scored a strong 197.450 to Alabama’s 197.525.
But if her Tigers — who have strung together four straight scores of 197.825 or better — can perform as they have over the past month, Breaux is confident the championship will be theirs.
“We’re not relying on luck,” she said. “We’re not relying on, ‘Gosh, if we had just one more week to prepare...’ We’re ready. If the stars line up and our gymnastics is on (Saturday) night, we’ll win it. We’re that good.”
SEC teams will compete in two sessions at Verizon Arena in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
No. 8 Georgia, No. 13 Arkansas, No. 20 Missouri and No. 22 Kentucky will be in the first session at 1 p.m. on ESPNU. LSU, Florida, Alabama and No. 6 Auburn will be in the second session at 5 p.m. on the SEC Network.
Having lost one of the program’s all-time greats — Baton Rouge native Rheagan Courville — to graduation after last season, along with seniors Lloimincia Hall and Jesse Jordan, it was questionable whether the Tigers could find themselves in such a position at this year’s meet.
But here LSU is again, with a new leader in junior Ashleigh Gnat — she’s ranked No. 1 nationally on vault, tied for first on floor and has an NCAA-best five 10s this season — and an infusion of talented youngsters intent on bringing the SEC trophy home to their palatial new practice facility.
“I wouldn’t say it’s part of our thought process, but it’s definitely something we want,” Gnat said. “And there’s nothing really standing in the way of that for us. We have enough confidence, we have enough practice — we’re ready to go.”
LSU has beaten every team in the conference this season except Georgia, losing a dual meet at Athens. The Tigers also own a win over No. 1 Oklahoma.
That résumé — coupled with LSU’s string of scores last month— has Breaux eager to change nothing.
“I couldn’t be more pleased,” she said.
Breaux juggled her lineup late last season, a mistake she said she won’t repeat. She hasn’t even been tempted to get talented freshman Lexie Priessman, who scored a 9.925 on bars after missing most of the season with an ankle injury, into more events for fear of upsetting her Tigers’ chemistry.
With an eye to doing everything she could to prepare for SECs, Breaux purposely had her team travel last week for a four-team dry run in Denton, Texas.
Aside from the level of competition in the event, which LSU easily won, Breaux tried to replicate everything as much as possible right down to the order the Tigers will compete in Saturday: bars, beam, floor and vault.
LSU isn’t ranked outside the top four nationally in any event but will finish with its strongest two events. The Tigers are No. 2 on floor and No. 1 on vault.
“If we’d gotten a little better a little sooner, we probably could have overtaken Florida and gone in as the first seed, but that didn’t happen,” said Breaux, noting an eventuality that would have changed LSU’s rotation. “But this rotation really fits us well. We go out like we did last weekend and get a great score on bars, hit beam and it sets us up for the two power events that we’re the best in, and our anchor on both of those events (Gnat) is primed and ready.”
Hambrick said it’s important not to want the SEC championship too much.
“We’re not thinking, ‘We have to win; we have to win,’ because then you’ll get ahead of yourself and things fall apart,” said Hambrick, who won the SEC vault title in 2015.
Still, Breaux more than anyone can’t help but imagine what it would be like to end LSU’s 35-year championship drought.
“Hoisting that trophy and bringing it back to LSU,” she said, “would be an incredible feeling.”
Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.