Last year at this time, LSU gymnastics was licking its wounds from a bitterly disappointing postseason. The school’s most accomplished recruiting class had just graduated, and a team that flirted with the #1 ranking all season failed to even make the Super Six.
Let’s just say that we were keeping expectations reasonable last year. For most of the season, LSU looked like a contender, but not necessarily a world beater. Then, come postseason, the team caught fire, and LSU held a lead going into the final rotation of the Super Six.
Unfortunately, Oklahoma came through and won the title, but LSU finished the season with a runner up finish at the Super Six, the best final result in school history. All that remains is that one final step, winning the title. And this year, almost everyone comes back.
The Tigers enter the season as the preseason #2 team in the nation (damn you, Sooners!), and no one is keeping expectations reasonable. This is the best chance LSU has ever had at winning a national title, with a stellar group of veterans and loads of young talent pushing for time. Let’s look at it by rotation:
VAULT (Last season: 1st)
LSU had the #1 vault RQS in the nation last year, and will only have to replace one gymnast from the final Super Six rotation. Now, that one gymnast is Jesse Savona, who stepped up big time last season. She went from a bars specialist to competing in three events by mid-February. LSU will miss having her solid, steely presence in the middle of the lineup. She didn’t score big, but she always scored well. Only once did she post a score below 9.80, though she never cleared 9.90. Consistency.
Speak of consistency, Ashleigh Gnat was consistently awesome on this rotation, averaging a 9.939 from the anchor slot. That’s right, averaged. Sydney Ewing and Myia Hambrick also flirted with a 9.90 season average. Those three, plus Juliana Cannamela and Sarah Finnegan who locked down rotation spots last season as a freshmen, are locks.
That leaves one slot and a bunch of contenders, all unproven. Erin Macadaeg is the only returning gymnast with significant experience. She averaged 9.768 over seven meets, plagued by inconsistency. This is still a loaded roster at vault, but there is a real opening for an underclassman to steal this slot.
BARS (Last season: 5th)
By season’s end, the uneven bars might have been LSU’s best event, which made their 49.125 score in the Super Six disappointing. LSU was usually scoring three tenths of point higher on the rotation, which is how LSU elevated itself from the crowd to the podium.
Lexie Priessman stepped up in a big way on the bars last year, averaging a 9.869 on the season as part of that loaded freshman class. On the other side of the experience continuum, Shae Zamardi enters her senior year as the steady rock. She averaged a 9.849, but only once scored lower than a 8.800 and never above an 9.900. You need those reliable performers in the middle of your rotation. Coach Breaux had her anchor the bars at the Super Six, but I think Priessman will take over that role at some point this year.
Gnat actually lost her spot on the bars rotation last year before gaining it back in time for the NCAA finals. It’s possible she benefited a bit by not competing for the all-around, though as a senior, she’s certainly going to get every chance to do so.
The big question mark is how Sarah Finnegan will respond to her fall in the Super Six. She scored a 9.900 at every stage in the postseason, only to score a 9.300 at the Super Six. It was the story of the year. She score a 9.950 twice last year, and scored a 9.90 or higher EIGHT times. She also had four falls, including the one at the final event. Finnegan could be the key to winning a national title. She’s got to nail it more consistently.
BEAM (Last season: 3rd)
Oh, Satan’s Apparatus. LSU managed to consistently avoid disaster on the beam, which is what qualifies as success. However, if you’re going to catch Oklahoma, you need to take that next step and start picking up big scores.
This is the rotation where Erin Macadaeg truly shined last year. After a rocky early season, she started routinely flirting with 9.90 on the beam. Sarah Finnegan and Myia Hambrick were the only two other gymnast who averaged about a 9.80 on the season, which speaks to the insane difficulty of the beam.
That means there are potentially three slots open on the beam, despite returning every gymnast who competed in Fort Worth at the vent. It will be near impossible to unseat Gnat, but Sydney Ewing and Julianna Cannamela have left the door open for someone to step in. Though Ewing’s near metronome like consistency on the beam will make it hard to put the senior on the bench.
FLOOR (Last season: 2nd)
This is where LSU shines. LSU has made the floor event their personal showcase, particularly during home meets. That’s when the crowd gets worked up to a near riot, and everyone tries one-upping the athlete before them, until it caps off with Gnat blowing the roof of the joint. Floor exercise is fun, is what I’m saying.
LSU loses two seniors here, as both Savona and Wyrick were part of the floor rotation, but McKenna Kelley had already stepped up as the next big star on the floor. Myia, of course, will compete in the all-around, so she will keep a spot on hammer lock. After that? It’s almost a clean slate.
Ewing held onto a floor slot all of last year, though she rarely scored above a 9.85. She is far more at risk of losing a rotation slot here than on beam. But no one really stepped up to seize it. Macadaeg had only floor rotation, and did well with it. Cannamela also only had one shot, and did not do so well. It’s hard to read much into just one meet.
Sarah Finnegan, surprisingly, never really gelled at the floor last season, despite competing at the other three events with regularity. She’s a prime candidate to start competing in the all around. Or we will see a larger role for the underclassmen. The early season should be fun as Coach Breaux tries out a lot of new faces.
Ashleigh Gnat is still the face of the team, but you could make a good argument that Myia Hamrick has taken over as the team’s best gymnast. However, that’s a great competition to have rage throughout the year. We all win if the two of them are trying to one up each other.
Sydney Ewing and Shae Zamardi will be the reliable senior veterans, providing a rock of consistency in their rotations. Zamardi is a bit more of a bars specialist, though I’d like to see her get a shot at the floor. Ewing can do it all, but I’d probably like to see her scaled back to vault and beam, so she can concentrate on her best events.
Because it is time to unleash the underclassmen. We got an inkling of the talent possessed by Priessman, Cannamela, Finnegan, and Kelley, but it was just the tip of the iceberg. That’s the impact they had as freshmen. Imagine what can happen as their role expands. Sarah Finnegan, especially, seems on the cusp of being the team’s next big star.
This team is talented, maybe even better than last year’s team (pours one out for Savona and Wyrick). There’s no limit to what this team can achieve. Coach Breaux needs to find a way to get this team to peak at just the right time.
The season starts tomorrow night, LIVE, NATIONWIDE on the SEC Network as the Tigers host #9 Georgia in the PMAC.