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LSU co-head coach Jay Clark cheers as freshman Kiya Johnson sticks the landing on uneven bars in the Tigers' season opener against Arizona, Friday, January 3, 2020, at LSU's Pete Maravich Assembly Center in Baton Rouge. Johnson scored a 9.800 in the event.

LSU co-gymnastics head coach Jay Clark says he’s like everyone else during the coronavirus lockdown, trying to get creative in the way he stays busy and mastering the art of videoconferencing.

“This Zoom thing has exploded,” Clark said Thursday, speaking to reporters through, yes, a videoconference. “I find myself doing this four or five hours a day with a lot of club coaches and kids we’re trying to maintain relationships with.”

Clark and some club gymnastics coaches have even started up a virtual cigar club on Wednesday nights.

“We socialize and talk about ways to keep the kids going the way they need to be,” said Clark, who completed his ninth season at LSU but first as co-head coach with D-D Breaux.

Gymnastics is one of those sports hampered during the pandemic by its specialization. Gyms are where the balance beams, uneven bars and other equipment is, and they’ve been locked up for weeks.

“We’re at a disadvantage,” Clark said. “It’s such specific equipment. We’re able to send them bands and basic things like that. Our strength coach and I work on three-week (workouts) and send it to them. They can use milk jugs filled with water and sand. It’s 90% conditioning right now.

“All we’re trying to do is be strong enough to do our sport again when we get back. We don’t want to have to turn marshmallow into steel. The kids have responded well.”

The truncated 2020 gymnastics season ended for LSU after a 197.000-192.250 win March 6 at Texas Woman’s University in Denton. The Tigers went 11-2 and finished ranked No. 6 nationally with an NQS (National Qualifying Score) average of 197.285.

But injuries hampered LSU, NCAA runner-up three of the previous four seasons, at every turn.

“Our injury list was a mile long,” Clark said. “But we felt we were about to turn a corner (physically).”

The pandemic brought a premature end to the careers of LSU’s two seniors: two-time NCAA vault champion Kennedi Edney and 2016 Olympian Ruby Harrold of Great Britain. Gymnastics is classified as a winter sport, so the option was not there to return for another senior season in 2021 as is the case for spring sports like baseball and track and field.

But Clark is confident in what the Tigers have coming back for next season, led by Kiya Johnson. She finished as the nation’s No. 2-ranked gymnast on floor exercise and Tuesday was named Southeastern Conference Freshman of the Year.

LSU will also have a large senior class of six gymnasts: Reagan Campbell, Bridget Dean, Christina Desiderio, Sami Durante, Sarah Edwards and Olivia Gunter. Edwards suffered a high ankle sprain Jan. 17 at Florida and LSU coaches considered having her undergo the so-called “tightrope” surgery on her ankle but decided against it.

“I’m glad we didn't do it,” Clark said. “You want to avoid something invasive. And if we’d done it, it would have all been for naught. She feels good now.”

LSU is also bringing in a strong freshman class, highlighted by former Junior Olympic national champion Haleigh Bryant, international elite gymnast Elena Arenas and Olivia Dunne, a U.S. national team member.

“They’re all real talented, though the one who jumps off the page first is Haleigh Bryant,” Clark said. “We’re in a really good situation and much deeper. We have 12 or 13 gymnasts in every event, which is something we haven’t had in my time here. Not that everyone can go out there and do a 9.90, but if you have 10 or 11 in each you’ll be in good shape.”

LSU’s 2021 schedule has not been announced yet, but the 2021 SEC championship meet will return to the Smoothie King Center. The Tigers won the SEC title there in 2019 before a meet-record crowd of 10,505, the third of three consecutive SEC meet titles for LSU.


Email Scott Rabalais at srabalais@theadvocate.com