Just one weekend after cautioning patience and lower expectations in our season preview, the gym team went out there and set the highest of expectations. In front of a record crowd for a season opener, the new look Tigers beat the #1 team in the country, Oklahoma.
So much for taking a step back.
All right, let's get the caveats out of the way first. The meet was at home, which surely buoyed LSU, and the next time these teams face, it will likely be in Fort Worth. Also, LSU won with a score of 196.950-196.725. That's nice for a season opener, but is nowhere near the kind of scores that both of these teams will likely post as the season matures. This was LSU winning with a rusty performance in the cozy confines of their home gym. This is not indicative of what the rest of the season will look like.
Caveats over. This was an awesome, awesome win. When a team loses a lot of its premier talent, it's important for the team to put up a convincing performance in its first competition, to show how the team will move on. And there were certainly some moments during which this team missed Courville and Jordan, but more importantly, they started to assert their own identity.
The freshmen came to play. Lexie Pressman, McKenna Kelly, and Sarah Finnegan all saw their first action in an LSU uniform, and all acquitted themselves well. Kelly, who we will never tired of telling you is Mary Lou Retton's daughter, had an exuberant floor performance. Pressman was solid yet unspectacular on the vault and beam, scoring a 9.775 and 9.725. While neither lit up the scoreboard, they looked like they belonged on the mat, and you could see the future potential. Most importantly, they did not wilt under the bright lights of a big time matchup.
But Sarah Finnegan took it to another level. She was an alternate for the 2012 Olympic team, and you can see how. She has arrived on campus fully formed, as if she has sprung forth from the head of Zeus like Athena. Finnegan posted the highest score for an LSU gymnast on both the bars and the beam (9.85 and 9.925), winning the beam rotation outright. Finnegan is already an intimidating presence in the lineup.
Myia Hambrick took home here first all-around title of her career, narrowly beating Ashleigh Gnat 39.450-39.425. Gnat's 9.70 on the bars opened up the door for Hambrick, who lacked the high end scores of Gnat, but won out due to her overall consistency. Hambrick will be relied on for that consistency all year, providing a solid foundation for the rest of the team.
It was a tightly contested meet against a great team. LSU opened up with a slight lead on the first rotation, only to give back the lead on a mediocre uneven bars rotation. It seemed like LSU suffered a bit from some tight scoring on the bars, but nothing truly egregious. The judges giveth, and the judges taketh. And it's not like Oklahoma put up huge scores on the bars either, so it seemed both teams suffered from the squeeze. All you can ask for is fair treatment, and LSU got that.
Things got dicey on the third rotation, as Oklahoma attempted to build up their lead on the floor exercise, while LSU had to suffer through Satan's Apparatus, the beam. Erin Macadaeg started off the rotation with a fall, adding to the pressure of an already intensely pressure-packed rotation. And that's when the rest of the team kicked in to high gear, and ended up scoring a 49.250 on the traditionally lower scoring rotation. Oklahoma only put up a 49.250 on the more high-scoring floor, and that was all the opportunity LSU needed.
The Sooners actually put up some big scores to start their turn on the beam, keeping the pressure on, but eventually suffered through the inevitable lower scores and a fall of their own. LSU's scores kept building to higher and higher peaks on the floor, capping off with Ashleigh Gnat's 9.950.
The most interesting thing about this meet, other than watching the Tigers emerge as a legitimate Super Six caliber squad, was the contrast of styles. As a more novice watcher, I tended to view all gym teams as the same, just differing in quality. Gymnastics is gymnastics, right?
Not really. A meet like this between two high caliber squads demonstrates the stylistic differences between teams and rotations. LSU is more of a power team, excelling at jumping out of the gym on vault and the floor. Which is fun to watch, but seems to hurt the squad a bit in the beam which so highly values control. LSU veers right to the edge. Oklahoma, by contrast, doesn't have the same kind of power as LSU, but instead is a more graceful team. Everything seems effortless, and the team is more traditionally beautiful to watch.
You need both power and grace to win the title, and both of these teams have it. It is only when I see these teams up next to one another that I can see the contrast in styles. I don't want to say that LSU lacks grace or Oklahoma lacks power, this is a relative comparison. Both of these teams are still putting together their teams, and right now LSU is slightly ahead of Oklahoma down the road to Fort Worth.
In the grand scheme of things, this meet doesn't mean that much. It's just a season opener, and it might not even be part of LSU's qualifying score by season's end. However, in the moment, it means everything. LSU didn't need a big win, but it got one. Ahead of schedule.
In one weekend, LSU went from hunter to the hunted. Oklahoma walked into Baton Rouge as the #1 team in the nation. They walk out with a loss, and left their #1 ranking behind with the Tigers. We'll take good care of it.