Survived and advanced!
The LSU Tigers gymnastics team booked their spot at nationals Sunday night in dramatic fashion. The Denver Pioneers won their home regional with a 197.875 after an amazing second-half comeback, and LSU joined them with a 197.750 to tie #3 overall seed Michigan for second. The Tigers advanced on the first tiebreaker, something that hadn’t happened since the introduction of the two-day regional in 2019.
LSU Vault 49.375 (4th place after 1)
The Tigers got off to a strong start on the event with the stingiest judging. Elena Arenas led off with a powerful Yurchenko Full (YF) stick that earned a 9.900. Alyona Shchennikova followed up with a Yurchenko 1.5 (Y1.5) in the second spot and took a big uncontrolled step forward to score a 9.825. Chase Brock got back up to her speed on her Y1.5 run and scored a 9.900 thanks to slight underrotation and a stutter step to the left. Aleah Finnegan followed with a 9.850 on her Omelianchik that had a step forward and looked similar to her 9.900 vault against Georgia. The biggest shock of the night came when LSU posted their lineup graphic and included KJ Johnson, the one who broke her foot celebrating after the Florida meet and whom head coach Jay Clark had all but confirmed was out for regionals weekend. She delivered a solid 9.850 on a YF with a hop forward. Haleigh Bryant finished the rotation with her front handspring (FHS) front pike half that scored a 9.875 for landing on the directional line closest to the camera and hopping back.
Overall, this was a solid start, especially considering how tight vault judging was across the Denver Regional. KJ was an incredible surprise, by the way, and it felt appropriate considering the meet was on at the same time as the second night of WrestleMania.
LSU Bars 49.525 (2nd place after 2)
LSU set a new program record for highest bars rotation score in a postseason meet, a fact that’s true when including SEC championship meets, too. Alexis Jeffrey led off with a 9.950 to tie the program record for highest bars score in an NCAA postseason meet. The only common deduction I noticed came on the leg separation in her pak salto. Other than that, she was brilliant on her handstands, she had incredible lines in her Maloney and she stuck her HIHO with incredible power. Ashley Cowan made her postseason debut in place of Livvy Dunne and scored a 9.850. People complained about bars judging and if there was any routine that exemplified that, it was hers. She over-arched both of her handstands and stepped back on her double layout (DLO) for a total of 0.30 in deductions. She looked a bit nervous at points during it, too, but that’s to be expected considering the circumstances. Ashley has amazing form, she doesn’t need gifts on routines that aren’t up to the level she’s shown this year. Anyway, Tori Tatum followed up with a 9.900 that was pretty legitimate. She had some leg separation in her pak and was short on her final handstand, and while it looked like she slid her left heel back on her HIHO, it’s possible that was part of her bringing her heels together to stick and not worthy of a deduction. Aleah followed with a routine that was perfect until her Fontaine. She overrotated the skill and stepped forward to score a 9.850. Alyona’s 9.825 was another controversial score. Besides the problems in her DLO that have sparked thousands of Twitter threads, she never hit a handstand position on the low bar, was short on her final handstand and squatted to stick her DLO with her hips at her knees. At some point near the low bar half turn, she ran out of momentum. Haleigh anchored the rotation with a 9.975 to break the program record for highest bars score in an NCAA postseason meet. She’s absolutely marvelous on the bars, but she flexes her feet in her double front half and some judges take for that.
Overall, this was the attacking bars team that LSU needed to have in this rotation. 49.525 is also a season-high on bars and the highest score LSU’s had on bars since the 2021 Florida meet, so they picked the right time to do well.
LSU Beam 49.425 (t-1st place after 3)
Beam judging was much tamer than it was in the regional semifinal, and LSU was much cleaner on the event than they were that day. Elena led off with a 9.850. She was close to short on her switch leap, was definitely short on her split jump, was low on her kickover front and took a small step back on her roundoff (RO) back 1.5, but she never took a balance check of any kind. Alyona followed with a solid 9.875 that lost for a short split jump, hip check after a side aerial and a piked landing on her BHS gainer full. It looked better than her routine from the semifinal, though, especially on her acro series. Alexis kept her solid day going with a 9.850. Besides the usual flexed feet in her switch side, she had trouble with her standing front again. Last time, it had a low landing, but this time, it had an additional hip check. Other than that, it was really good, especially her RO back 1.5. Sierra Ballard followed with a legitimate 9.800. She had a hip check in her BHS LOSO, a short switch half and a step forward on her RO back 1.5 for a total of 0.20 in deductions. It scored lower than her routine in the regional semifinal, but it had superior execution. Haleigh kept her hot streak going with her second 9.950 on beam of the weekend that lost for a small check on her full turn in an otherwise perfect routine. Aleah got her revenge on beam with a 9.900 that was perfect until she stepped back on her gainer full dismount.
Overall, LSU had a much better time on beam than they did on Friday. They attacked the beam like they had in other successful meets and set themselves up for a good finish.
LSU Floor 49.425 (t-2nd place at end)
The Tigers couldn’t match what they did on Friday, but they came close. Sierra led off with a 9.850 that might’ve lost for the rise out of the back 1.5 to front layout (FLO) and certainly lost for the short switch leap. This wasn’t her typical routine, though. She did a switch leap to switch ring to knee for her leaps instead of a switch ring to switch half to knee and cut out her double pike that usually ends her routine. Alyona followed with a solid 9.900 that looked fine but might’ve had issues on the leaps, something I can’t say for certain because of a bad camera angle. Chase kept things rolling with a 9.850 of her own that lost for a step forward out of her double pike and an incomplete turn on her switch side to Popa but was otherwise fine. Elena followed up with a 9.875 that had leg separation in both of her passes, yet more of it was in her FLO to front full than her FLO to front double full. By this point in the meet, Denver was running away with the title and it was down to Michigan and LSU to see who would advance. A 9.975 from either of LSU’s hammers would’ve surpassed Michigan’s score. Aleah scored a 9.850. She got revenge for her fall on her double Arabian by nailing the skill, but she nearly went out of bounds on her back 2.5 to front tuck and didn’t complete the turn on her tour jete half. That meant Haleigh needed a 9.975 to clinch a spot at nationals. She stuck her front double front, nailed her FLO to Rudi, hit her split enough to count, lacked great head release on her switch ring and was perhaps short on her switch half. She ended up scoring a 9.950 to tie Michigan and initiate chaos.
Overall, this was a good rotation, but the difference between this and the one from Friday was that Chase and Elena had better routines that day to bring the score up.
The chaos and overall thoughts
Denver didn’t need to wait for anything to figure out if they advanced. They went lights out on beam to solidify their spot as champions of their regional. Before anybody could work through tiebreakers, judges had to go through Bev Plocki and her series of inquiries. Had any of them gone through, Michigan would’ve advanced, but none of them did. Plocki was especially frustrated with one specific score that stirred up controversy once it flashed: Reyna Guggino’s 9.775 on floor. Broadcaster Ashley Miles Greig thought it would score about a 9.900 as did many online. Heck, one judge gave it a 9.95. I thought it was no worse than a 9.80, but it got Bev heated.
That forced the judges to pull out their calculator, an iPhone. The first tiebreaker for advancing a team is the combined score of all 24 routines. The judges calculated that for all four teams and put it on the score sheet, and that situation would’ve seen LSU and Oregon State advance with LSU as regional champion. Michigan had two falls, a 9.100 on bars and a 9.250 on beam. LSU’s lowest score was a 9.800. When including the four dropped scores, LSU won 237.050-235.725 and advanced to nationals for the first time since 2021. Jay’s been on the wrong end of this scenario before. In his first season as Georgia’s head coach in 2010, the GymDogs missed nationals for the first time since 1983 after tying Oregon State. He was very emotional in his post-meet interview, and he had every right to be.
2022 ended as roughly as a season can end for a team. The trials and tribulations of a season impacted by illnesses and injuries ended on a Thursday afternoon in front of hundreds of people in March. The super seniors didn’t get to have their last practice picture, Haleigh didn’t get to defend her vault title and thanks to a UCLA choke in the regional finals, Kiya Johnson represented LSU all by herself at nationals. That moment lit a fire underneath this team that’s carried on. They saw 2022 as a fluke, not an indication of who they were. They came in hot and ready to compete for an SEC or even national title. Then Cammy Hall tore her Achilles the day before leaving for Thanksgiving break. That sucked, but Kiya’s Achilles tear at the Kentucky meet sucked much of the life out of everyone. There would be no glory, no SEC title, they’d probably miss nationals again. They went out and had some decent performances but nothing too spectacular. Then it clicked. They hit beam at Auburn and found momentum, then they knocked off Florida for the first time in years. In the ensuing celebration, KJ broke her foot after getting knocked off a mat and it seemed everything was back down the spiral. They went to Coleman Coliseum and knocked off Alabama, they beat Cal despite Kai Rivers tearing her Achilles in pre-meet warm-ups and Aleah missing the meet with a bad illness. They fought through adversity, hardship, injuries, pain, doubt, everything to get to the Denver Regional final. Then they used their glue to get to glory.
I want to leave you with one stat to tell the story of how improbable it was that they got past the Wolverines. If you take every Michigan routine from the lineups they used on Sunday evening and add up the number of times that gymnast performed a routine on that event in the 2022 season, you get a total of 222 performances. Michigan is full of experience, and they use only one underclassman. Of the 24 routines they competed Sunday, four had 0 appearances in 2022. LSU used eight routines that never saw a lineup in 2022. If you do what I did for Michigan and add in the same number for LSU’s regional semifinal lineup, you get 214. LSU had less than half the experience of the Wolverines on that floor Sunday night and they didn’t back down, they didn’t quit, they went out and executed and are climbing on to nationals.