With a trip to Georgia on the schedule Friday, LSU co-gymnastics head coach Jay Clark and Tiger junior Sami Durante knew the questions were bound to come up.
That’s because the ties with Georgia run deep for both.
The Athens, Georgia, area is home for Clark. He used to walk from his house in nearby Watkinsville on Friday nights and go watch former LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger play there (it’s the same high school of incoming LSU freshman quarterback Max Johnson).
Clark went to Georgia, worked for a total of 22 years in its gymnastics program, working up to being UGa’s head coach in 2009, succeeding legendary coach Suzanne Yoculan-Leebern.
Clark’s tenure didn’t live up to the lofty standards Yoculan-Leebern set and he resigned in 2012, becoming an assistant at LSU where he was named co-head coach with D-D Breaux last offseason. Clark was replaced at Georgia in 2013 by Danna Durante, Sami’s mother.
Durante’s tenure didn’t have a happy ending, either. She was fired in 2017, replaced by Courtney Kupets Carter, a former UGa star regarded as the greatest collegiate gymnast ever. Yoculan-Leebern, who returned as a volunteer coach for Georgia the past two seasons, retired again in the offseason.
Opening night to the 2020 season Friday was one of bumpy beginnings for the LSU gymnastics team.
Time passing has helped smooth out whatever wounds existed for Clark and Sami Durante. Athens is still home for both (Durante's parents still live there), and they expect plenty of family and friends in the stands at Georgia’s Stegeman Coliseum for the 6:30 p.m. meet on the SEC Network.
“My first couple of years here there was a little consternation about going back,” Clark said, “who you’re going to see and how you’re going to be received. Now I just look forward to it. It’s another meet. The meet itself doesn’t affect me whatsoever.
“We’ve had a great deal of success (at LSU), so that’s easier. But going back and seeing people you’ve known for 30 years, that’ll always be a special place to me. There’s no getting around that. But as far as the competition goes, the meet itself, we’re going there to win another meet.
“That’s the bottom line.”
Durante admitted there were nerves for her when LSU went to Georgia her freshman year given her family’s history with the UGa program. She was set to walk on at Georgia if her mother had remained the coach but wound up at LSU, in no small part because of her family’s relationship with Clark.
“I think it will obviously be different,” Durante said. “I’ve grown up a little bit. I’ve gone back once so I know how it goes. Honestly, it’s just another meet.”
It’s a meet in which both the Tigers and Gym Dogs will be looking to improve in from last week’s season-opening performances, trying to get off on the right foot as Southeastern Conference competition begins.
LSU opened at home with a 195.725-195.025 victory over Arizona last Friday. It was a win and the Tigers had some strong performances, led by a winning 9.95 from freshman Kiya Johnson on floor. But it was also the first time an LSU team failed to break 196 in a meet since January 2016. Meanwhile, Georgia won the four-team Critique Classic in Kissimmee, Florida, but only posted a score of 195.100.
The Tigers, who won the first two SEC regular-season titles contested in 2017 and 2018, got off to a 0-2 start in SEC competition last year and were never a factor in the race. LSU finished 4-3 in conference but got stronger toward the end, with a 197.900-196.325 victory in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center over Georgia pointing to a third straight SEC Championship meet title in New Orleans three weeks later.
Senior Ruby Harrold is confident the Tigers will improve from their first meet to the next.
“We’re always expecting to be better,” she said. “Having our first meet under our belt is always a good thing.”
There was no confusing the LSU football team’s high-flying offense with the score turned in by LSU’s gymnastics team Friday night.
Friday’s SEC schedule
LSU at Georgia, 6:30 p.m. (SEC Network)
Missouri at Kentucky, 5 p.m. (SEC Network)
Arkansas at Florida, 6 p.m.
Alabama at Auburn, 8 p.m. (SEC Network)
All times Central