Before beginning, I would like to apologize for an error I made in the Gym 101 Recap. I called Kamryn Ryan’s same-bar release a Tkatchev when it’s actually a Jaeger.
LSU is looking to bounce back from a rough 2022 season that saw the Tigers’ season end in the Raleigh Regional Semifinals before the calendar flipped to April and saw them miss nationals for the first time since 2011. 2022 was a doozy: almost the entire team was banged up around Gym 101, the first meet of the season came close to getting canceled, the next two meets got postponed and later combined into a tri-meet held on the road 40 hours after a home meet, there was a midseason transfer (glossing over a lot with that), and two gymnasts caught norovirus right before they left for Regionals. Luckily, that’s in the past.
LSU’s 2022 super seniors are gone, leaving spots the 2023 team must fill. Sarah Edwards never missed a vault lineup and was a solid alternate on floor. Sami Durante was a staple as the team’s bars anchor while also serving as an alternate on vault and beam. Christina Desiderio was one of the best beam and floor leads in the country last season, surprising many by having her best season in her fifth season. Bridget Dean was a beam specialist who served as a solid link in the rotation.
There will be a preview of LSU’s opponents coming soon, but this preview will be about LSU as a whole and on each event.
The 2023 team comes into the season healthier than last year’s team. That said, there are some key injuries to note. Utah grad transfer Cammy Hall is out for the season with a torn Achilles, dealing a blow to the vault depth and floor depth. Freshman Annie Beard is all but confirmed to be out for the season after undergoing shoulder surgery a few months ago. Livvy Dunne has two torn labrums, but that won’t prevent her from competing bars (though it could keep her off floor). Finally, Kai Rivers will be ready for the season after recovering from rotator cuff surgery, but she’s only going to do beam for the moment (no need to rush her back on vault or bars).
The 2023 team comes into the season with a better mindset than last year’s team, too. They look more focused and more driven, especially at Gym 101. The people on this team see last year as a fluke and come in on fire. While this may be great, it’s important that said fire doesn’t burn out too early. Michigan came into last season on fire following their national championship season, but that played into them peaking far too early and them having a meltdown at Nationals.
LSU is not a balanced team. The strongest event is vault considering how deep it is while the weakest event is bars, as head coach Jay Clark’s mentioned since the first practice. Despite that, there’s a good argument that if they stay healthy and don’t get hit by the injury bug like last year, they’re a better team than last year’s. Injuries are the scariest thing, though, especially for a team that’s going to rely on some people to push them to the top. It’s another thing that’s like 2022 Michigan (they made Nationals, at least).
Vault is LSU’s deepest event. They only showed off four 10.0 start value vaults at Gym 101: Alyona Shchennikova’s Yurchenko 1.5, Aleah Finnegan’s Omelianchik, Kiya Johnson’s Yurchenko Double (DTY) and Haleigh Bryant’s front handspring pike half. Those look to be mainstays in the line-up, especially because Jay mentioned they might run those four as all-arounders during the season (Alyona’s 1.5 has been inconsistent in the past, so it’s more likely to come out than the other three).
LSU has at least four others who have shown off a 10.0 vault in the past. KJ Johnson did a DTY in level 10 and has trained it in the offseason, but she’s had trouble sticking it (she nailed her YFs last year, never going below 9.800 and earning All-SEC Freshman Team honors with it). Bryce Wilson also did a DTY in level 10, earning three 10.0s in her most recent season and winning the national vault title (this makes me wonder if she could upgrade the YF she did at Gym 101 to the Double by the end of the season since it’s less of a push). Chase Brock did a YF at Gym 101, but Jay mentioned it could get upgraded to a 1.5 (there’s footage of her training it on Instagram). Finally, Kam Ryan has a Y1.5 that she’s exhibitioned in the past (such as at the 2021 Missouri meet); the main problem is that it’s very inconsistent, but it’s damn good when it hits (one of the prime reasons Alabama offered her a scholarship).
Jay mentioned that they’ll likely run a maximum of five 10.0 vaults by the end of the season and into postseason, an upgrade from the four they used last year. If they decide to do that instead of running six 10.0s (like they should), it’s most likely the 9.95 will be Elena Arenas’ YF and that would be the lead. LSU likely starts the season running the four 10.0 vaults they showed off December 12 before adding in a fifth by the Florida meet. The other 9.95 is probably going to be KJ’s YF since it was a solid scorer last year. The fifth 10.0 is tougher to predict, but it’ll either be KJ or Bryce’s DTY or Chase’s Y1.5, whichever’s most consistent.
LSU showed off more people on bars than on any other event at Gym 101, but there was much more of a divide in quality than on the other events. Some of that could’ve been from trying to get used to being under the lights for the first time this season (or in their college careers), but I can’t shake a feeling that this will be an event of great concern throughout the season.
Kiya was unbelievable, she looked like she was in mid-season form already with a routine that was great from mount to dismount. Haleigh and Aleah were incredible, too, but their first dismounts were off. Haleigh nailed her second try, while Aleah carried some momentum through her second landing (she has a new dismount, unlike Haleigh). Those three are vital to any success for LSU on bars.
Elena is fantastic on bars when she hits like she did at Gym 101 (her low bar half turn is textbook), but she needs to be much more consistent than she was last year. Alyona’s routine is probably going to be a staple in the lineup as usual, and it should get solid scores (even if there are times where it shouldn’t). Ashley Cowan showed off a very impressive first routine that only had one major miss (didn’t hit a handstand) and looked like it was being done by someone who was a bit nervous. Her double layout was a tad close to the bar, but it had basically no leg separation (a common issue with DLOs). Elena and Alyona will make the majority of bars lineups, and while Ashley may not begin there, she has a ton of potential to score well and crack a lineup.
There were two routines that need more polish before they have a chance at making a lineup. I raved about Alexis Jeffrey’s routine in my original recap, but after rewatching it, I noticed her low bar half turn didn’t wasn’t great and she landed her dismount leaning left with soft knees (still a vast improvement over where she was a month prior and could be viable soon). Tori Tatum is coming off a shoulder injury and (from what I heard) a wrist injury, so maybe that’s why it looked like she was struggling a bit through her Gym 101 routine. She did a much better routine a month prior with fewer form breaks, but even then, her routine needs a bit more polish than Alexis’. Livvy’s also looked unpolished, but she’s still fighting back from having a torn labrum in each shoulder and it looked similar to her routines from the back half of last season (she tore at least one labrum around that time).
LSU didn’t use bars depth last season. LSU used four sets of six gymnasts on the 11 bars rotations in 2022. Two of those came during the weekend of the Alabama and Missouri meets. Alyona missed both because of injury and Kai missed the Missouri meet after getting injured vs Bama (that’s almost definitely where she injured her shoulder). In fact, had Alyona and Kai been fine, there’s a very good chance that the combination of Alyona, Haleigh, Kai, Kiya, Livvy and Sami would’ve been the bars lineup all year.
Bars collapses in both of LSU’s 2022 postseason meets were the catalysts for disappointing finishes. In my opinion, LSU must be willing to experiment with some changes to bars lineups outside the solid three of Kiya (still the lead), Aleah and Haleigh (those two likely take the last two spots in the order with Haleigh anchoring to get the 10 she was robbed of at Florida). For the fourth slot in the lineup and rotation, it should be the most consistent of either Alyona or Elena. The remaining spots are the second and third in the order. That’s probably going to be one of the most intense battles for a spot on the team since five or six people are going to be competing for them: Alyona, Elena (whomever doesn’t get the four hole), Livvy, Alexis, Tori and, potentially, Chase (she’s learning a new release right now and was hit or miss on bars in her freshman season). Jay probably has an idea for the early season lineup, but it’s definitely subject to change as the season progresses.
This is the only event on which LSU loses two fixtures of last year’s team. It’s also the event on which LSU’s past two seasons have ended (honestly should’ve happened at Regional Finals in 2021 if the judges did their jobs properly). That can’t happen again this year, it’s unacceptable. Luckily, they showed off tons of talent and fight at Gym 101. Nobody fell, sat a landing or had a major balance check, and there was less variance in quality across all routines than on any other event.
LSU’s most best beam workers are Kai, Haleigh, Aleah and Kiya (a healthy Annie Beard would’ve made this list, too). Kai has the mindset anybody would kill for on beam, she’s never bothered by anything going on around her (see her routine at Florida last season for the best example). Haleigh is good at everything and has a new dismount that’s more difficult to execute for most people but easier for her (same as her bars dismount last season). Aleah is almost at the point where she can rack up multiple beam 10s, she just needs to perfect her dismount (she tried at least three last season and has a new one for this season, just needs to get that chest position better). Kiya is perfect, no notes.
Alyona is great on beam, but she was also a tad inconsistent last season. If she’s in the best mindset of her career like Jay’s said, though, that might be less of an issue, and she could be a good three or four-hole hitter. Bryce did a great routine and showed potential, so that’s something to watch out for as a potential part of the lineup. KJ’s routine was good, too, as was Sierra Ballard’s (again, little variance in quality).
Last season, LSU used four super seniors on beam throughout the season (though Reagan Campbell only competed the opener). Sami competed on beam at six of LSU’s 11 meets (basically subbing in for someone who wasn’t in the lineup for whatever reason each time), Bridget competed 10 and Christina competed all 11. This is why I have a ton of questions about how LSU will perform on this event, especially because only five people on the team this year competed beam last year. Alyona will almost certainly make the lineup based on her experience and scoring potential, leaving a three-horse race for the final spot, which will either be second or third in the order. It’ll be a fight between Bryce, KJ and Sierra to see who can be the most consistent and earn that final spot.
LSU has made their name on floor for quite a while, but last season was a bit of a drop off. The team finished 10th in the nation on floor, though it didn’t help that Kiya only competed four times (had she gone more, that might’ve changed). Luckily, this year’s team looks to have a bit more talent and scoring potential from the start.
Gym 101 isn’t great to show the power of a full routine or how it’ll be during the season since almost everyone skipped their first pass on the first run (except Elena since she does a two-pass routine). One thing it did show was that Haleigh and Aleah are back to three-pass routines (Aleah was at two last season to minimize injury risk). Aleah’s floor has turned into one of the best things on the team after a change in music and choreography, plus she looks like she’s gotten over the troubles she had with her final pass last season. As for Haleigh, while the music may not match the choreography (floaty routines don’t work with heavy percussion), the execution is still there.
Sierra had a solid routine that looked better than last year’s (save for her first passes), and that could mean she gets back to where she was scoring as a freshman (9.800+). Alyona looked back to her usual form on floor even though it wasn’t really her strongest event last season. KJ had some control issues on her first and third passes, but that was true at Gym 101 in 2021 and she did fine last season. Chase did a very good routine out of nowhere (a month prior, she had a terrible routine where she could not hit landings). If that’s consistent, it’s a solid alternate (so good to see she’s back even if she wasn’t injured last season).
Kiya only did one pass at Gym 101. That may seem odd, but the ones she skipped are hard landings that can aggravate her bad Achilles more than the one she did. As I said in my Gym 101 recap, she’s supposed to be doing all-around to begin the season as opposed to being held off floor early in the season like last year (again, that’s what she told me back in August). She’s a floor queen of the highest order, so it’s not a bad idea to be careful.
Last season, LSU used 10 different floor lineups, only repeating the Auburn lineup against Florida (considering that lineup set the school record for a floor rotation, it makes sense). Livvy was the only person on the team who competed floor last year who didn’t do floor at Gym 101 (injuries are unfortunate). Replacing Christina as floor lead is a tall order, but I think it would make sense to replace one DLO with another and starting with Sierra. Kiya will retain her anchor spot, that much is certain, but what’s less certain is the order of the two behind her. It doesn’t matter if it’s Haleigh, Aleah, Kiya or Aleah, Haleigh, Kiya, it’s an unbelievable back half that has the potential to 30 if they’re on point. As for the other two spots, it’s likely that the two goes to Alyona and the three goes to KJ. That lineup probably goes out at the first few meets since LSU has to build scores early rather than late. Elena’s routine can be decent, Livvy’s is a two-pass that’s scored decently and Chase’s is gorgeous if it’s like it was at Gym 101. One thing that could pop up out of nowhere is Ashley Cowan on floor. Though it may not happen this year, she was one of the best floor workers in the country this past level 10 season (she’s coming off an injury and, say it with me now, Jay doesn’t like to push freshmen).
LSU has a more talented team than they had last year. Even though the super seniors are gone, Haleigh’s healthy (and appendix free!), Kai’s back, Alyona’s in the best place she’s been in a while, Chase is back, Sierra’s feeling better and Aleah is on a revenge tour that will leave no survivors. Honestly, if there is one person to really watch out for, it’s the Filipino Phenom. She was dealing with a foot injury last season, thus explaining the two-pass floor routine. She does a powerful 10.0 vault, has a beautiful bars routine that’s missing a perfect dismount, performs a near-perfect beam routine that has been a perfect dismount away from getting a 10 since last season and works an unbelievably awesome floor routine that’s a perfect balance of difficulty and execution. She also won four medals at the Southeast Asian Games in May because some people are too awesome for one continent.
In all seriousness, though, any grand visions of a national or SEC title look out of reach thanks to Oklahoma and Florida coming in with the deepest, most talented rosters in the country. LSU’s lack of quality depth on bars at the moment could come back to cost them at the end of the season, but they should finish in the top 8. If they don’t, something’s gone horribly wrong.