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LSU at Utah Gymnastics Meet Preview

Carnival’s opening night belongs to the queens

LSU gymnast Alyona Shchennikova sits on a purple and gold throne in a black and purple leotard wearing a crown while her legs rest on the right armrest. Stylized text above her reads “The Climb begins in Utah” and below her reads “Friday, January 6, 8 PM CT”

It’s the day we’ve all been waiting for: the opening day of the 2023 NCAA women’s gymnastics season.

#6 LSU opens their season on the road for the first time since 2012, when they opened at the Cancun Classic (hopefully they do much better than the 192.500 they posted exactly 11 years ago). They face the #3 Utah Red Rocks on ESPN2 at 8:00 p.m. The Huntsman Center will look a bit like a circus tent because they told fans to stripe it out in white and red, but that 15 thousand-strong crowd can be quite intimidating.

LSU vs Utah history:

LSU is 8-30 against Utah in all competitions and 4-5 in the regular season. The Tigers are 0-9 against Utah in all competitions at the Huntsman Center, but they haven’t had a dual meet in Salt Lake City since 2003. LSU’s most recent meeting with Utah was the 2022 season finale, a 198.125-197.875 Tiger victory.

New for the 2023 season:

Over the offseason, the NCAA made several changes. There are two areas that are worth noting: vault and replay.

If you watched Gym 101, you might have noticed lines on the vault mats. These are directional lines, and they’re standard in elite (elite mats also have a distance line down the middle). The directional lines make a funnel shape from the ends of the vault table outward. NCAA vault coaches have been begging for this change for years to help tighten vault judging. Directional lines help judges see if they need to apply a directional deduction, which can be up to 0.3. These aren’t out-of-bounds lines, so steps outside the lines won’t get a 0.1 neutral deduction like on floor.

The NCAA also changed the replay system. First, equipment malfunctions are subject to video review. I wonder why they did that? Anyway, the biggest change is in the replay review system. Coaches can inquire about a score at any time, but they get one replay review per meet. The NCAA removed the 0.1 penalty for a failed review, but they gave judges the ability to deduct skills or connections credited by replay. Expect more reviews this season than ever before.

About Utah:

Utah comes into 2023 with high expectations as usual. The Red Rocks finished 3rd at Nationals last year, an event they’ve never missed, and return 21/24 routines from last year’s Four on the Floor, only losing Alexia Burch and Cammy Hall on vault and Sydney Soloski on floor. Luckily for them, they have three newbies to take their places: freshmen Sarah Krump and Makenna Smith and Michigan grad transfer Abby Brenner. Smith could jump into the all-around rotation tonight since she did all four events at the Red Rocks Preview, while Brenner is a proven bars and floor specialist.

2022 national vault champion Jaedyn Rucker returns for her senior season, as does 2021 bars and floor national champion Maile O’Keefe, who missed the 2022 LSU-Utah dual meet with an illness. The Red Rocks’ roster is stacked with talented gymnasts on all four events. The biggest question for this meet is whether fifth-year senior Cristal Isa competes. She’s apparently out of the boot she was wearing for the past month or so, but as of writing, nobody’s announced if she’s competing tonight.

Utah’s best event by far is beam. Head coach Tom Farden builds his team around a strong group coached by Carly Dockendorf that went below 49 once last season (a fluke loss at Arizona). If Utah does well on vault and bars and LSU doesn’t, they can seal the meet in the third rotation.

About LSU:

LSU is going to use four all-arounders for this opening meet: Haleigh Bryant, Aleah Finnegan, Kiya Johnson and Alyona Shchennikova. The Tigers are trying to put up a strong opening score and get off to a fierce start, which is why Kiya is on floor to open the season unlike last year.

LSU opens the 2023 on bars. Kiya’s expected to lead off the rotation and Haleigh’s projected to anchor. Elena Arenas is the only probable non-all-arounder listed in the bars lineup because there’s a three-way tie between Tori Tatum, Ashley Cowan and Alexis Jeffrey for the final spot.

All four of LSU’s all-arounders do 10.0 vaults. The other two spots on vault are likely Yurchenko Fulls, which start at 9.95. Elena’s projected to lead off and KJ Johnson, who made the 2022 SEC All-Freshman team on the event, should find a spot in the middle. The one-two punch of Kiya and Haleigh in the final two spots should be as good as usual.

LSU’s meet notes list seven probable people on floor. That’s impossible, so it’s most likely that Elena won’t do floor, Sierra Ballard will lead, KJ will fill the third spot, Kiya will anchor and Aleah and Haleigh will be in the fourth and fifth spots (no clue who should go first).

Finally, there’s beam. Kai Rivers will lead LSU’s final rotation, likely followed by the debut of Bryce Wilson. The four all-arounders should take the final four spots, though the meet notes list KJ on beam and Alyona as an alternate, so don’t be surprised to see that. As with floor, Haleigh and Aleah will precede Kiya, the anchor.

This should be a fun and interesting meet, but remember that the win/loss result matters much less than if LSU looks like a good team. LSU needs a good opening score to set the tone and begin their climb.