ST. LOUIS — The Super Six may be history, replaced next year by a still-to-be named “final four.”
But the “super six” remains an elite group the LSU gymnastics program is trying to crack.
UCLA won its seventh NCAA title here Saturday night, keeping a lid on membership in the sport’s championship club with the kind of exclusivity that would make Augusta National Golf Club green-jacketed with envy.
Six programs have won the team title since 1982: UCLA, Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Utah and Oklahoma, runner-up this year after finishing first in 2016 and 2017.
And LSU? After finishing as runner-up to Oklahoma the past two years, the Tigers were fourth this time, though in a sense closer to the top than they were in 2017. LSU finished 0.65 points behind Oklahoma this year, but just 0.2375 behind the Bruins despite also being behind OU and Florida.
“That’s ridiculous,” junior Sarah Finnegan said. “It tells you how tough it was.”
How close was the final result? If the Tigers had improved their scores on five routines by five one-hundredths (0.05), they would have won. A quarter of LSU’s scores that counted, certainly, but not a level of improvement that was beyond the pale for a team that recorded four 198-plus scores this season.
Scoring at the NCAA meet is generally judged more harshly, better scores harder to come by with six judges observing each event instead of two. Throw in human bias and a ridiculous propensity for judges to hold back their top scores for those competing later in a meet (what if the perfect routine comes from the leadoff spot?) and you really see how close LSU was.
And yet, there was a little something missing. Or someone missing. She was missing all season, and her name was McKenna Kelley.
It is remarkable, really, that LSU went into the final rotation Saturday night still having a chance to win the title (0.125 points behind leading Oklahoma at the time) with Kelley reduced to a cheerleader’s role from the sidelines by a November Achilles tendon injury. If healthy, she would have likely performed in every event except bars. She could have given LSU that scoring pop to carry it over the top.
“That’s the difference in a meet like this,” LSU coach D-D Breaux said. “We needed one more powerful routine.”
Of course, the road to injury-plagued disappointment is one well traveled by every gymnastics team. Florida lost All-American Kennedy Baker to an Achilles injury during the season, but the Gators nipped LSU for third, 197.850 to 197.8375. You dance onto the podium with who you have and do your best.
Her best is what senior Myia Hambrick did Saturday night. They don’t award individual titles in the Super Six — that was done in Friday night’s semifinals — but the NCAA does track the scores. Hambrick would have been second in the all-around to Oklahoma super-sophomore Maggie Nichols with a 39.6625 that included 9.95s on floor and vault to finish the night. Not a personal best, but probably her best performance, considering the championship pressure.
“Bugs said don’t leave with any gas in the tank,” Hambrick said, referring to Ashleigh Gnat, the former LSU All-American and now a student assistant. “I don’t feel I have any gas left in the tank.”
“Every event, she got better and better,” Breaux said of Hambrick. “She probably did the best all-around of her career.”
Hambrick will be gone next season. So will fellow senior Erin Macadaeg. All things considered, though, 2019 sets up exceptionally well for LSU.
Between them, Hambrick and Macadaeg, who typically only performed on beam, accounted for five of LSU’s 24 routines each meet (the lowest score on each event is thrown out).
LSU returns Finnegan, the Southeastern Conference gymnast of the year, for her senior season, along with senior-to-be Lexie Priessman, though another offseason shoulder surgery could be in her future. And having Kelley back, if she can do three events, mitigates most of what Hambrick and Macadaeg will not be around to do.
Then there are LSU’s freshmen, who showed such promise under the harsh pressure of Super Six lights. Sarah Edwards had a 9.95 on vault. Christina Desiderio had a 9.90 on floor. And Sami Durante, though she only had a 9.775 on Saturday, will be expected to improve and expand her role from only leading off on bars.
“Sarah Edwards did the vault of her life,” Breaux said. “We got it from a lot of people tonight.”
Finnegan added: “Look at the growth of our freshmen and how they stepped up. I’m really proud of them.
“I’m looking forward to next year.”
LSU can derisively be called “Next Year University” in many sports. Betting on the come, to use a gambling parlance, has become the national pastime of fans.
Nonetheless, 2019 shapes up as another blockbuster for the Tigers if they can stay relatively healthy. LSU will be a host site in the new NCAA regional/super regional format, and LSU fans can have the Smoothie King Center rocking when it hosts the SEC Championship meet in March. With what Florida, LSU’s nearest current SEC competitor, is losing, the Tigers will be favored to sweep both conference titles again.
Then the national title? There will still be plenty of talented contenders out there like OU, UCLA, Florida and others, but LSU should have as good a chance as ever as the national meet (paired down to eight semifinalists and four finalists) moves to Fort Worth, Texas.
“Eventually it’s going to happen one year,” Hambrick said in what amounted to her exit interview. “Only six teams have ever won it, but LSU is headed in a great direction. I’m going to be excited to watch and see what they can do.”
Watching to see if LSU can break through the “super six” and make it the “magnificent seven.”