It was in so many respects a bittersweet night Jan. 31 when LSU hosted Alabama for what is always a huge Southeastern Conference gymnastics meet.
It was alumni night as well, with more than 60 former LSU women’s and men’s gymnasts in attendance (yes, LSU once had men’s gymnastics before the program was disbanded in 1984).
Two alums in particular from last year’s team, All-Americans Sarah Finnegan and McKenna Kelley, had the 12,000-plus LSU gymnastics fans in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center pining a bit for the recent good old days. Especially after the Tigers lost to Alabama 196.775-196.425.
The loss dropped LSU to 3-2 overall and 2-2 in the SEC as the Tigers step out of conference Saturday for a 1:30 p.m. CT meet with host Oregon State and Arizona State in Corvallis, Oregon. The meet will be streamed live on Oregon State’s athletic website, OSUBeavers.com.
The Alabama loss, coming a week after a loss at Florida, by no means signals the meaningful end to LSU’s season, though it does probably mean the Tigers’ hopes of an SEC regular-season championship are over with only three conference meets remaining.
Not a surprising, nor unpredictable, development. The growth this LSU team required, especially after the loss of seniors like Finnegan, Kelley and Lexie Priessman from last season’s NCAA runner-up, was always going to be a long-term project. Couple that with recent injuries to senior all-arounder Kennedi Edney (she was limited to two events against Bama) and junior Sarah Edwards (probably out a couple more weeks with an ankle injury she suffered Jan. 24 at Florida) and LSU has turned into quite a vulnerable team at this point.
Vulnerable, though not down and out.
LSU is still ranked No. 9 through five meets with a season average of 196.645, not really that far back of its No. 5 ranking after five meets in 2019 with an average of 197.015. The 2020 Tigers have posted more lower scores but also have a better season high at this point, a 197.775 at Florida compared to a 197.450 in 2019 at Alabama in Week 4.
The issue for LSU, and the thing that Finnegan provided the Tigers so capably in 2019, is consistency. A stable string of plus-9.90 scores that LSU could always build on. This year’s seniors, Edney and Ruby Harrold, often have posted great scores but had tough times following them up. Harrold had a 9.95 on vault at Florida, then LSU had to throw out her 9.225 when she fell on vault against Bama. And Edney, who had four 9.90 scores or higher at Florida, is still probably a week or two away from competing on more than beam and floor after suffering a practice elbow injury before the Alabama meet.
LSU’s best gymnast and rising star has been freshman Kiya Johnson. She’s the nation’s fifth-ranked all-arounder and is No. 2 on vault and floor. But she’s had her wobbles on bars and beam at times, ranked 68th and 106th in those events, respectively, despite a perfect 10 on beam at Florida.
But there’s hope for the future. Johnson’s talent is evident, and LSU’s coaches are optimistic that fellow freshman Alyona Shchennikova will be a star on at least three events, though she’s recovering from an offseason Achilles tendon surgery. And getting Edwards back in another week or two will be another big boost, as she’s had a 9.95 on vault and a 9.90 on floor. A healthy Christine Desiderio, who competed last week despite a big wrap around her waist to protect a hip injury, would also help the Tigers’ cause.
Even with its struggles, LSU looks like a team still capable of being one of the top two to advance through an NCAA regional to the eight-team NCAA championship meet in April in Forth Worth, Texas. Making the cut there to the four-team final — the NCAA paired the final from six to four teams in 2019 basically to better accommodate television — looks out of reach right now. But it is definitely worth remembering that five meets in last season, the Tigers looked nothing like a team that was capable of finishing as NCAA runner-up for the third time in four years. A team that would have won LSU’s first NCAA title if a second Oklahoma gymnast had flubbed their floor routine, making the Sooners count a bad score.
This shaped up as a transition year from the era of Finnegan and Kelley and Priessman to the future that figures to be dominated by Johnson and Shchennikova and promising fellow freshman Kai Rivers. And don’t forget about Sarah’s talented younger sister, Aleah, who arrives in 2021 or 2022.
Displaying the fight to squeeze more good scores out of a lineup that, when healthy, can give plenty of them remains the big question as this LSU team tries to ramp up through the rest of the regular season for that all-important championship season in March and April. They haven’t quite looked like the Tigers so far, but recent history says it would be foolish to count this team out.