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Never Fear, It’s Gym Season!

Regionals start this weekend

2019 NCAA Division I Women’s Gymnastics Championship
Last chance for Reagan Campbell to win it all
Photo by Timothy Nwachukwu/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Basketball has been eliminated from the tournament. Baseball got swept by Tennessee. Softball got swept by Florida, who is at least better than Tennessee is at baseball. Swim finished 18th at the national championships which, to be honest, is huge progress for the program.

But it wasn’t the best week for LSU sports. And that’s before we get into the Louisiana state legislature launching hearings into the Husch Blackwell Report. Have no fear, gymnastics is here to save the f’n day.

I’ll admit that I’ve been bad about covering the team for y’all this year. I’ve had things I’ve wanted to write, and I’ve never been able to get it together. Mainly, I’ve been paralyzed by indecision. So, before we cast an eye forward to the NCAA regionals, let’s take a look back.

Up until mid-February, everything was going according to plan. LSU’s scores were slowly climbing to the high 197 range, Hayleigh Bryant had established herself as a star, Alyona Shchennikova had made the move to a solid all-arounder, and Kiya Johnson, while struggling a bit through some injuries, was displaying the high end skill that few gymnasts in the nation could duplicate.

It all peaked with a fairly epic match on February 12, when Florida and LSU exchanged haymakers in a thrilling meet at the PMAC. The Gators edged the Tigers 198.150-198.050 thanks to Trinity Thomas scoring a 39.90 in the all-around, the fifth best score in NCAA history. Look, the other team is trying to win, too, and if it takes a near record breaking performance to beat you, you just tip your cap. LSU was still in great shape.

That’s when the wheels came off.

LSU didn’t have a bad meet next week against Bama, but the team wasn’t hitting on all cylinders. A 197.325 usually will beat anyone in the country outside the top five, but Bama came strong with their best performance of the year, scoring a 197.725. It wasn’t just the Tide’s highest score of the season, it was their highest score by 0.725 points.

Hey, no big deal. Some times the other team plays out of their gourd, right? It’s just now it had happened two straight weeks that a team put forth not just their best effort, but their best effort by orders of magnitude. Hey, come at the queen, you best not miss. Teams are gonna raise their game.

But the worry alarms really went off the next week. In what should have been the Return to Normalcy meet, instead LSU dropped one to Kentucky 197.100-196.800. LSU should not be scoring in the 196 range that late into the season. Again, it was their opponent’s best score of the year, but this one was on LSU. LSU simply had a disaster on Satan’s Apparatus and as we all know: win the beam, win the meet.

So now was the time to panic. LSU had lost three meets in a row, each time with a progressively lower score. Worse, the loss to Kentucky seemed more mental than physical, as the team simply unraveled on the beam, something we are not used to seeing.

Instead of panicking, the team rallied. LSU crushed Mizzou on senior night, scoring a 197.875. Suddenly, the Lady Tigers were back in the postseason form you want to be in.

The SEC Championships promised to be a showdown between LSU and Florida, but that showdown never developed. Now, it was Florida scuffling through one of their worst meets in years, suffering multiple falls and missed landings.

However, Alabama again raised their game and found a gear we didn’t know they had. Bama held off a furious LSU charge on the final rotations to win 197.875-97.775. LSU scored a 49.50 and a 49.625 on its final two rotations, but Bama did not blink. Again, credit to the other team, but LSU showed us what they needed to show, that they could come through in the clutch.

Instead, it was the highly touted Gators who crumbled. Now, going into the regionals, it seems none of the top teams are completely on form. Oklahoma lost the Big 12 for what seems like the first time in a millennia. Florida’s last two scores are 197.425 and 196.975. Michigan lost the Big 10 championships. LSU now might be in the position of being the hottest team in the top four, and the Tigers lost the SEC title, too.

LSU finds itself now as the top seed in the Utah regional. Utah themselves are no pushovers, winning the Pac-12 over #5 Cal with a 197.725. Utah’s big weakness is on the bars, where they rank 15th in the nation. Also lurking in the regional is Kentucky, who LSU has no business taking lightly, given that the Cats beat the Tigers head to head already.

The good news is that LSU doesn’t need to beat Utah, as two teams will advance from the region to nationals. But you do want to make a statement. Utah will be carried as far as Maile O’Keefe can take them. She averages 39.531 on the all-around and a remarkable 9.940 AVERAGE on beam.

We talk about win the beam, win the meet all of the time. Utah ranks 3rd in the nation on the beam, while it is LSU’s worst event this year, ranking 7th. To LSU’s advantage is that the Tigers two best events are floor and vault, the two rotations you can really put up huge scores. LSU ranks second in the nation in each of those disciplines.

LSU’s strategy this year has been to cling on for dear life on the beam, as they simply lack the gymnasts who can put up reliable big scores. Now, Reagan Campbell, Sami Durante, and Christina Desiderio are capable of those huge scores, but they have not come consistently.

But I think LSU can win getting by on beam, though they do need a sprinkling of big scores. The event which will likely make or break the Tigers’ postseason chances is the bars.

LSU ranks 6th on the bars but what makes the rotation so dangerous is that it is the event most likely to create large separation between the top teams. You can put up a big number or you can suffer disaster. But merely clinging for dear life probably isn’t viable like it is on beam. You can’t simply avoid error on bars and hope for the best.

You need to go all out and risk that disaster because the top teams are going to put up monsters on this rotation. It probably won’t be an issue in Utah. LSU can win or at least advance with a good not great bars score, but the Tigers have no chance of winning the national title without crushing the bars. And you need to have that mentality now.

We are taking an eraser to the season. Everyone has had struggles, even Oklahoma. This is the most wide open field in years and while LSU has struggled this year, the Tigers seem to be rounding into form at the best possible time. At the end of the year, no one cares how you did in February, it’s what you do now that counts.

This team is good enough to win the title. But they are going to have to live on the razor’s edge to do it.

The Utah regionals are on Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM Central Time on ESPN3.