FORT WORTH, Texas — Ten weeks ago, the LSU gymnastics squad did not look like a team that would ultimately finish as runner-up in the NCAA Championships.
It wasn’t even a sure bet the Tigers would finish runner-up in the regional they hosted at LSU and advance to the national semifinals at all.
On Feb. 8, the Tigers went to Kentucky and came home on the short end of a 197.150-196.025 defeat. It was the low point of their season.
It was LSU’s worst score since early in 2016, it eliminated the Tigers from contention for the Southeastern Conference regular-season crown they won the two previous years and senior Lexie Priessman suffered a biceps injury that would plague her the rest of the way.
The only people who believed in the Tigers at that point were the Tigers themselves.
“We came together and asked, ‘What are our intentions from here on out?’ ” junior Kennedi Edney said. “We set our goals, regrouped and focused on details in practice. And it showed the rest of the season.”
After that meet, LSU never finished behind any opponent again until it reached the NCAA Championships. In Friday’s semifinal, the Tigers finished second to UCLA but easily earned one of the two transfer spots to advance to the four-team championship meet.
Saturday, LSU finished second again, steamrolled by an Oklahoma team that but for one slip up on floor was virtually unbeatable. The Sooners won their fourth NCAA title since 2014 with a score of 198.3375, besting LSU’s 197.825 by nearly half a point, a wide margin in gymnastics.
It was the Tigers’ third runner-up finish in the past four years, all behind Oklahoma. While some LSU versus Alabama-like football comparisons will undoubtedly start to creep in — how can the Tigers close the gap with the Sooners? — in truth it was a remarkable achievement for an LSU team that looked in February like it had no business being here in April.
“They didn’t rely on us to motivate them like a football coach,” LSU coach D-D Breaux said. "They circled up and took control of their own destiny.
“What we saw was an example of this team pulling itself through knotholes all season long, coming away with an SEC championship and a regional championship and making it to this incredible four teams at the end.”
There is frustration in finishing second once again. You saw it on some of the faces of the LSU contingent as the Tigers accepted yet another silver-trimmed NCAA trophy instead of the one everyone coveted the most.
But it was a remarkable season for LSU, highlighted by its third straight Southeastern Conference Championship meet title last month in New Orleans.
“I told them to be proud because we had an amazing meet and an amazing year,” senior All-American Sarah Finnegan said.
There were tears after the meet for LSU’s gymnasts, overcome with the finality of it all. The Tigers may shed a tear for what they are losing from this 2019 squad.
Finnegan will go down as arguably LSU’s best gymnast ever and one of the greatest Tiger athletes in any sport. She exited the floor Saturday night as a two-time NCAA event champion (uneven bars in 2017 and this year), two-time SEC gymnast of the year, AAI Award winner (given to the nation’s top senior gymnast) and winner of 92 career individual titles. For much of this season she was responsible for carrying this LSU team on her back and pushing them toward the top.
Oft-injured senior Priessman is leaving, too. She showed flashes of brilliance in her courageous career — like the 10.0 on bars against Georgia this season — but had to overcome too many surgeries to display her true potential. Role-playing senior Julianna Cannamela departs as well.
Whither McKenna Kelley? She can return for her fifth season in 2020 — she sat out 2018 with an Achilles tendon injury — but is conflicted about whether she wants to subject herself to another year of intense training. She probably won't return, though LSU certainly could use her. The Tigers will be otherwise led by rising senior Edney — also now a two-time NCAA champ on vault in 2017 and this year — and rising senior Ruby Harrold, the former British Olympian. Both will need to improve on their consistency to approach filling the void left by Finnegan.
Then there is LSU’s huge class of sophomores turning into juniors: Reagan Campbell, Christina Desiderio, Bridget Dean, Sami Durante, Sarah Edwards and Olivia Gunter. There is talent there, but it needs to start producing. Between them, this group has four event titles total.
In other words, 2020 could be a transition year, especially if Kelley does not return, as LSU blends in another highly regarded recruiting class. Kai Rivers, who won the 2017 Nastia Liukin Cup, Kiya Johnson and Caitlin Smith could be names LSU gymnastics fans are cheering for in big roles next spring.
For now, though, the Tigers put another runner-up trophy on the shelf, proud, but still hungry for that first national title. One they came closer to in 2019 than could have possibly been imagined just a couple of months ago.