FORT WORTH, Texas — Before the LSU gymnastics team left Baton Rouge to fly here for the NCAA Championships, the Tigers sat down in a team meeting and filled in the blanks.
The blanks of who they are as a team. Of the answers they hope to find by Saturday night.
“We wrote down, ‘I am … blank,’” senior Sarah Edwards said. “’We are … blank.’ ‘This team is … blank.’ We filled in those words. ‘I am … confident.’ ‘I am … dependable.’ ‘We … will attack and conquer.’
“We wanted to instill little tidbits of confidence in each other. We don’t have anything to lose going forward.”
On the contrary. The Tigers have everything to gain. Or, perhaps, the ultimate to gain.
The goal in the NCAA Championships for No. 3-seeded LSU will be to fill in the ultimate blank. A quite tangible blank. The blank shelf atop the already glittering trophy case in LSU’s already glittering gymnastics practice facility.
The shelves are filled with trophies for Southeastern Conference titles and for the program’s three NCAA runner-up finishes in 2016, 2017 and 2019. But the top shelf is reserved for the national championship trophy that has eluded LSU’s highly successful program so far.
Is this the year the Tigers’ go top shelf?
It seems both unlikely and highly likely.
On one hand, this difficult, pandemic-shadowed season has been one of almosts for LSU. The Tigers almost beat Florida in a No. 1 versus No. 2 showdown in Baton Rouge on Feb. 12, only to come up one-tenth of a point short. They almost won the Southeastern Conference championship meet in March, only to come up one-tenth of a point short to Alabama. They finished second in both sessions of the NCAA Salt Lake City regional last month, though LSU’s regional final score of 197.750 tied for third-best from any regional and would win you a lot of NCAA championships.
Then there is this year’s NCAA field. All top eight national seeds advanced to Fort Worth, with No. 2-seeded Oklahoma, No. 6 Utah and No. 7 Alabama joining LSU in Semifinal II in Dickies Arena (5 p.m., ESPN2).
“Every team has a shot,” LSU coach Jay Clark said. “There’s not a weak team in the bunch. It’s absolutely who is there on any given day. This will come down to the little things – the handstands and landings. Tiny execution things.
“I’ve seen national championships won by a quarter of a tenth. It’s great for our sport and great for TV, but it’s bad for the cardio health if you’re out there doing it.”
But this is the year just about any of the eight could win it all. Certainly the top five or so. LSU is one of five teams to post a plus-198.000 score this season along with Oklahoma, Florida, Michigan and California. And just about every team has thrown in a clunker of a meet down the stretch. For Florida, Oklahoma and Cal, it was in their conference championship meets. For Michigan, it was a sub-196.000 score in late February. For LSU, it was a 197.025 in the regional semis.
In that regional, the Tigers had to overcome a total of six falls from their regular lineup, including two each from All-American all-arounders Kiya Johnson (bars, beam) and Haleigh Bryant (floor). Despite that, LSU advanced, getting clutch performances in other places in its lineup like a closing 9.925 on beam from senior Reagan Campbell in the last routine of the regional final when the Tigers needed a 9.80 to advance here.
“We’ve survived momentary doubt and created a situation for ourselves that we were able to fight our way out of,” Clark said. “That’s the mark of a great team as well. We’ve got all the ingredients.
“I think we’re a confident bunch. We have a belief system that says we won’t be shaken by anything.”
Maybe the Tigers have the right mix of talent, confidence, hard knocks and resiliency to make this their year. Perhaps it’s easier to think so, senior Sami Durante said, when you remember that there might never have been a season at all.
“I’m grateful we got to have a season,” Durante said. “We weren’t sure about that. To make it as far as we have and to have a chance to win the national championship, I think we’ve made the best of it.”
Now may be their best chance to fill in that ultimate blank that the LSU gymnasts want to say about themselves:
“We are champions.”