LSU retakes the podium for one of the biggest meets of the year.
The #5 Tigers are on the road for the first time in 2024 in a “neutral” meet. Last week, LSU came back from a .275 deficit to beat preseason #14 Ohio State 197.975-197.775. This week, they’ll be on a national stage in the second session of the Sprouts Farmers Market Collegiate Quad Meet in the Maverik Center in West Valley City, Utah, alongside #1 Oklahoma, #2 Utah and #12 UCLA. The meet begins at 3:00 p.m. and will be broadcast nationally on ABC. You can also catch the meet on ESPN3 and ESPN+ if you wish to do so. All rankings are as of Week 1 according to Road to Nationals, a week that did not see every team compete.
Historical background for LSU and the other teams
LSU is 11-23 overall against Oklahoma, 5-9 against them in the regular season and 8-19 against them on neutral floors. The two teams met twice last year, first in a dual meet on MLK Day in the PMAC that the Sooners 197.600-197.450 and most recently in the 2023 national championship which Oklahoma won for the sixth time and won over LSU 198.3875-197.5250. The next regular season meeting between LSU and Oklahoma will be a conference meet.
LSU is 8-32 overall against Utah, 4-6 against them in the regular season and 4-20 against them on neutral floors, something that’s technically true about this meet despite it being right outside Salt Lake City. These two teams also met twice last season. The first was in the season opener, a dual meet at the Huntsman Center which Utah won 197.275-196.775, and the second came at the aforementioned national championship where Utah finished just ahead of LSU 197.9375-197.5250 to round out the bottom half of the meet.
LSU is 7-25-1 overall against UCLA, 2-5 against them in the regular season and 6-19-1 against them on neutral floors. Unlike with the last two teams, LSU did not meet UCLA in the 2023 national championship because UCLA failed to advance. The last time the two teams met was at the 2019 national championship, the first under the current format, at which LSU finished second ahead of UCLA in third 197.8250-197.5375. The last time the two met in the regular season was on 1/27/2018 at the Metroplex Challenge in Fort Worth. UCLA beat LSU to take the meet title 197.625-197.375.
This is not LSU’s first time in West Valley City, the second largest city in Utah. In 2021, Utah got permission to host their regional at the Maverik Center. They wanted to put the meet on a podium, but the NCAA denied that request because the other three hosts weren’t willing to do that. LSU earned a spot in that regional. They advanced out of the regional semifinal in second place behind Kentucky and ahead of Arizona and Utah State, then they got the luck of some extremely loose beam judging to advance in second place out of the regional final behind Utah and ahead of Arizona State and Kentucky.
About #1 Oklahoma (begins on vault)
It’s still Oklahoma, y’all. They came in ranked #1 in the preseason after another dominant season in which they won their second consecutive conference title and national title. They’re the runaway favorites to threepeat, and nobody is close to their level. It’s the same story as usual: Norman 3:16.
The Sooners lost three members of the 2023 team including national vault champion Olivia Trautman. They added three freshmen and grad transfer Soraya Hawthorne out of Georgia. They also retained Ragan Smith for a fifth year. She and Jordan Bowers are the gymnasts to watch because they embody the incredible talent and execution that have become synonymous with this program.
The Sooners opened the season with a first-place spot in their session of the Mean Girls Super 16 with a 197.850, ahead of Kentucky, Michigan State and Michigan. Rankings in week 1 don’t mean much, but here they are anyway. OU is 2nd on vault [49.350], tied for 1st with Oregon State on bars [49.625], 1st on beam [49.475] and 5th on floor [49.400]. They’re good on everything, but their weakness is floor. That’s like saying the weakness to a lead-lined box is a neutron star, but it’s the way it is.
K.J. Kindler is in her 18th season as head coach and primary beam coach. She is assisted by associate head coach and primary vault coach Lou Ball, also in his 18th season, associate head coach and primary floor coach Tom Haley, also in his 18th season, and assistant head coach newly promoted from volunteer assistant role Ashley Kerr, in just her seventh season.
About #2 Utah (begins on bars)
Talking about Utah right now is like going to an Alabama meet: there’s an elephant in the room you just can’t ignore no matter how hard you try. Here is a vast oversimplification of everything that happened in the offseason. Now-former head coach Tom Farden got accused of abuse. Utah did an investigation with famous law firm Husch Blackwell, the same firm that wrote a scathing report into LSU’s Title IX misdeeds, and they did not recommend that he be fired. Kara Eaker left the team and accused him of some more things in an Instagram post, but he was not fired, just put on leave. Then his employment lawyer said that he wouldn’t change his coaching style when USA Today reached out about a story. The next day, he and Utah “mutually parted ways.” There are many more details, but that’s a short summary of what happened.
Utah is coming off another great season with their third straight third place finish and third straight Pac-12 championship. They came into the season ranked #4 in the WCGA preseason poll despite everything in the offseason.
Utah lost six members of their 2023 team. One was Kara Eaker, as mentioned earlier, two were fifth-year seniors and the other three were transfers including current LSU gymnast Jillian Hoffman. In total, they lost their second- and fourth-best vaulters, their top and third-best bars performers, and their second- and third-best beam performers. They added four freshmen and picked up sophomore Ashley Glynn from Temple out of the transfer portal. They retained three seniors for their fifth years including the reigning NCAA all-around and beam champion Maile O’Keefe. She’s the reigning Pac-12 Gymnast of the Week and top Utah gymnast to watch especially on beam, the event on which she scored the first 10 by any gymnast in the 2024 season.
Utah opened their season with a 197.300-194.350 home win over Boise State. Utah is tied for 12th with Ball State and North Carolina on vault [49.150], tied for 11th with Auburn on bars [49.325], 2nd on beam [49.375] and tied for 3rd with Missouri on floor [49.450]. If they’re anything like the Utah of years past, beam will be their best event.
Carly Dockendorf earned the job of full-time head coach on December 7 after 6 seasons as an assistant. She is the mastermind behind the best beam team in the country the last two seasons. She hasn’t hired a third assistant coach, so for now she’s assisted by third-year assistant and vault coach Jimmy Pratt and third-year assistant coach Myia Hambrick who coaches floor.
About #12 UCLA (begins on floor)
UCLA came into the preseason poll ranked #5. They finished the 2023 season with the same ranking after a massive turnaround under a new head coach. They finished 2nd at the Pac-12 championship to Utah, a team against which they have a nine-meet losing streak and who has lost to Cal, Oregon State, Arizona and Arizona State more recently than they’ve lost to UCLA.
This is quite an interesting team when it comes to their roster. They lost four members of their 2023 team, but only two graduated. Jordan Chiles and Ana Padurariu are deferring this season to train for the 2024 Olympics for the U.S. and Canada respectively. The Bruins added four freshmen, though Sydney Barros is there to recover from injuries she sustained when she deferred to train for the Olympics, and one transfer. LSU fans might remember the name Nya Reed, a Florida gymnast who scored a floor 10 against the Tigers in the 2022 dual meet between the two teams. She’s taking the fifth year everyone expected her to take at Florida when she announced that she was taking her fifth year at Florida. They also retained two fifth-year seniors. Watch for sophomore Selena Harris; she’s a superstar.
The Bruins opened their season at the Mean Girls Super 16, too, but they didn’t have as good a meet as Oklahoma. They put up a 196.550 to finish 4th behind Alabama, Cal and Auburn. UCLA is tied for 3rd on vault with Cal [49.325], tied for 14th with Minnesota on bars [49.275], tied for 30th with Northern Illinois on beam [48.450] and 2nd on floor [49.500]. If you’re wondering about beam, that’s the result of counting a 9.125 on beam alongside some pretty tight judging throughout the entire meet. Vault has held UCLA back the last few years, so it’ll be interesting to see if the first meet was a fluke or the start of something sustainable.
About #5 LSU (begins on beam)
LSU comes in ranked 1st on vault [49.375], 7th on bars [49.375], 20th on beam [48.700] and 1st on floor [49.525]. It appears that 2024 meet notes will not include probable lineups like they did last year, and that’s not very fun. What is absolutely certain is that Chase Brock will not be in the lineups since she hasn’t appeared in any media this week. Nobody has said anything to explain her absence.
LSU will make changes to their opening night lineups. Head coach Jay Clark mentioned that the coaching staff has come up with ideas for rotations they’d like to see run for the first several meets of the season. Kiya Johnson had to get subbed out for Amari Drayton in the final rotation of the Ohio State meet due to cramps, so perhaps she’ll make her debut on that event this afternoon. Other than that, it’s a guessing game.
This meet will run in the same way as nationals. I caught the first session of the meet last night, and it looks like a great broadcast experience. Vault and beam are paired together alongside bars and floor. When one pair finishes, another pair starts. The ACC Network broadcast made sure to show every routine and was using split screens a bunch, and hopefully that continues for the ABC broadcast. It should be a good experience, and hopefully it ends with a good result.