LSU’s season got off to a decent start in Salt Lake City Friday night despite losing to Utah 197.275-196.775. This was the Tigers’ first road opener and first season-opening loss since 2012, but the team set a program record for highest score in a road opener (breaking the previous record of 195.725 from the 2008 opener in Cancun). LSU remains winless at the Huntsman Center, but their score tied for 10th best of any team in the opening week and was the best of any team in a true road meet (five of the top seven teams opened at the neutral Super 16 meet in Las Vegas).
The “Superfans” Situation
Before getting into the meet itself, I must address the biggest story from it. During the meet, a group of young men (can’t confirm ages) shouted for LSU gymnast and influencer Livvy Dunne during and after LSU routines. That wasn’t terribly disruptive to the team, but the group that gathered outside the building after the meet forced LSU to reroute their bus. ESPN reporter and 2008 Olympic silver medalist Sam Peszek posted a video of what happened when she went by the group, showing them shouting at her angrily and flipping her off. Legendary gymnastics broadcaster Kathy Johnson Clarke replied to Peszek’s Tweet and said the group shouted at her asking if she was Livvy’s mom and made her feel very uncomfortable. Utah gymnast Jillian Hoffman’s mom, Jennifer, posted on Facebook that she was swarmed by the group as she, Jillian and a teammate walked to her car. People in the group told the two Red Rocks “you are not Livvy, but you will do, can we get a picture,” called Jillian “Livvy 2.0,” and acted rudely. Those weren’t gymnastics fans, they were disruptive idiots who could’ve hurt someone.
The original reporting on the behavior outside was inexcusable and downplayed the danger and the issue with what happened, so let me just address a handful of things. Yes, somebody could’ve gotten hurt, that’s happened far too many times with celebrities. No, her celebrity status does not make any of this okay, she’s a human being at the end of the day and this kind of behavior is never acceptable for any other celebrity. No, it is not her fault for how her fans react, she’s never encouraged fans to be disruptive or to harass other people. No, “she posts provocative pictures” is not an excuse for this kind of behavior; she doesn’t even do that unless you think a woman in a bikini or a leotard is “provocative,” a mindset reflective of inherently misogynistic modesty culture. Yes, the fact that she’s a gymnast makes this whole situation much worse because of the issues of abuse within the sport itself. I hope that this was a one-time thing because nothing even close to this happened last season and she competed every meet.
The Meet Itself
Anyway, the gymnastics, the thing that actually matters and is fun. Yes, LSU did their gymnastics without falling, something Utah can’t say (Grace McCallum sat her vault and Jaedyn Rucker missed her first floor pass, a double arabian). While that’s great, I’m of the opinion that a team’s season doesn’t really start until the first fall because it’s the first bit of major adversity from which a team must recover. I’m especially curious how this team will bounce back from their first fall because they weren’t great at that last year (see the two postseason meets for proof). One thing I noticed throughout each rotation was that people were very powerful and might need to bring things in a bit. Note, the numbers by each event are the score from the meet and LSU’s national ranking on that event after the meet.
Bars (49.000, 21st)
Yeah, this one was not great. LSU began the season on their weakest event and it showed. LSU only had two hit routines, Haleigh Bryant’s 9.825 in the anchor and Alexis Jeffrey’s 9.875 in the 3 hole in her LSU debut. Alexis was the only person who stuck her dismount (Alyona Shchennikova nearly stuck hers, but she had to take a step out to salute), which was the most glaring issue during this rotation. Stuck dismounts don’t get deducted, especially with the tight bars judging LSU faced that night. That could’ve been part of the overall issue with aggression. Elena Arenas got a 9.750 because of a 9.80/9.70 judge split, but it’s hard to argue with the low score because she overdid her pak salto (high to low transition) and caught the low bar too close. Aleah Finnegan overdid her first handstand a tad and way overdid her final handstand (I genuinely worried she’d fall), which led to a dismount that landed with a dismount deduction trifecta (arm swing, low chest and step/hop). Alyona’s routine got a 9.85/9.70 split that made no sense when considering she never hit a handstand and did a college stick. This doesn’t even begin to address the form errors on her double layout (DLO), but that doesn’t get deducted in the SEC, anyway.
Overall, there’s a lot of room for improvement, but at least nobody fell and they rebounded well on vault.
Vault (49.300, T-7th)
LSU did much better on their deepest event, but they only stuck one vault. Elena went 9.850 on her nearly-stuck Yurchenko Full (YF) with a 9.90/9.80 split. The rest of them were pretty decent and showed that the new guide lines on the vault mat could tighten vault scoring. Alyona’s 9.825 Yurchenko 1.5 (Y1.5) had good distance, but it landed toward the left and finished with a big hop. Aleah’s 9.850 Omelianchik was superb, but she put a bit too much power on it and had to take a step. KJ Johnson’s YF got a 9.775, her first sub-9.8 score in her career, and I disagreed with people saying it was a low score because she landed with her left foot outside the funnel (what I call the area inside and including the guide lines) and took a hop back in, plus there’s a chance a judge took off for her hands being far in front of her head on the block. Kiya’s Yurchenko Double (DTY) had some leg separation in the air and stuck it close to the left line, hence the 9.875. Haleigh’s front handspring (FHS) pike half went 9.900 instead of 10 because she had a massive hop back, that’s it (it was still enough to tie for the night’s vault title).
Overall, vault looked great, especially for the first meet of the season. Things got even better on floor.
Floor (49.375, 6th)
Floor was LSU’s best event Friday night as it showed off the great combination of difficulty and execution. Sierra Ballard led off the rotation with a superb 9.825 (felt like it got .05 off for being the lead, it was that good) routine with a beautifully controlled and stuck DLO, brilliant back 1.5 to front layout (FLO) to stag jump, and a phenomenal double pike that kicked things off with a bang. Alyona followed up with a 9.825 of her own, and while it opened with a stuttered front double to full open, the rest of the routine was decent (her FHS rudi to split jump got some distance, but that split looked short). The only thing close to a fall from this meet was KJ’s 9.500, a powerful routine that ended too powerfully. Her chest looked low on her full-in landing, but her back 1.5 FLO looked perfect. Her Popas (part of her leap series) could’ve had more toe point and probably got a small deduction, but the biggest killer was her over-rotated double tuck, which had a bad landing position, had no control and forced her to take a couple steps, eventually finishing out of bounds (again, there’s that aggression). Aleah’s 9.950, where do I begin? It’s tied for the best floor score in the nation right now, and for good reason. She absolutely nailed her double Arabian (it could’ve broken through the mat) to stag leap, hit her back handspring (BHS) 2.5 twist to front punch beautifully (seriously, go look at how tight her twisting form is, it’s a GAGE specialty) and nailed her back 1.5 to FLO. The only place where she looked like she lost something was on her leap series (her tour jete half looked short). 9.950 set a new career high for the Filipina Phenom (thank you Havy for correcting me) and showed off how she manages to balance high difficulty with great execution. Haleigh’s 9.875 had control issues on all three passes; her FLO to rudi (second pass) was her best, then her FHS double front (her first pass) was a bit less controlled and finally her FHS front double twist (third pass) had the least amount of control (there’s that aggression again). Finally, Kiya’s 9.900 might’ve seemed low, but her full-in wasn’t controlled and her back 1.5 to FLO didn’t stick properly (her momentum carries through it). She still executed it well and stuck her double pike with pure power.
Overall, the Tigers attacked this event with power. The difficulty and execution balance is really good (some of the first passes are harder than entire Florida routines) and if they’re healthy, this should be a return to the LSU floor dominance of old. The final rotation was fine, and at least they all stayed on.
Beam (49.100, T-12th)
Beam wasn’t a disaster Friday, but it showed that there might be weak links in the rotation that need work. Kai Rivers led off with a 9.700, which got docked hard because of a big wobble after her BHS LOSO, plus her first switch half appeared short and off on the landing and her round off to double full dismount ended with a slight hop. Bryce Wilson made her debut with a 9.775 on a 9.85/9.70 split. I think it was once again closer to the low score because her switch leap to straddle quarter might not have connected because of the pause in between (to give credit where it’s due, she got incredible height) and she had a bit of a balance check on her full turn. Still, it was a very good debut and she’s shown great progress over the last two months. KJ made her beam debut with a 9.725 that began with her amazing reverse planche mount (still can’t believe she does it), but lost points on her sissonne, a leap that looked potentially short of 170, and her BHS 1.5 dismount that landed with a step back. Those two were the weak links in the chain, but they can get better and they never fell. The final three routines of the night were all hits. Haleigh’s 9.850, a 9.90/9.80 split, was very good, though she had to go low a couple times on the beam and landed her rudi dismount with an uncontrolled hop (momentum still carried though). Aleah went 9.900 on a beautiful beam routine (can’t think of a more perfect word for how she performs) that had a wonderfully executed BHS layout LOSO triple series and was very good (not on 10 pace), with the biggest issue still being the dismount. I will say that it’s good to see her hit that gainer full with her chest up, but she had to fight to do so and her momentum carried up as a result. Finally, there was Kiya’s 9.850, who did a decent routine by her standards, with small issues being the toe point on her switch leap switch leap split jump series, her front tuck landing a bit off (which happened on her 10 last year, honestly) and her BHS 1.5 dismount landing with a small step.
Overall, Kai’s big wobble probably cost around 0.1, but Bryce and KJ need to work on the things that got them docked on the beam. In the end, Haleigh and Aleah shared the all-around title at 39.450. The team looked to be in a great headspace, and that’ll need to continue into the next meet against Kentucky at Rupp Arena (not the usual venue of Memorial Coliseum) Friday at 5 p.m. on ESPN2.