In a corner of the competition hall at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, a stunned LSU gymnastics team gathered around coach Jay Clark, shocked and stunned by what just happened.
Leading the second NCAA semi-final through two of four rotations, the Tigers finished 0.038 points away from advancing to the four-team final after Sami Durante fell and his uneven bars injury and LSU trained at beam.
“It’s not even a movement of the foot,” Clark said.
How far away was LSU? Because the top two in each semifinal advanced, Florida exited the other semifinal with a score of 197.4375, while the Tigers missed their fifth consecutive NCAA Finals appearance and technically finished. in sixth place in the general classification.
“It was almost overwhelming to the soul,” said junior Alyona Schennikova.
Back at the team’s hotel, the Tigers’ shock turned to anger. And determination.
“We will be back next year,” said Haleigh Bryant, now a sophomore, “better than ever.”
“We got back to the hotel and we were all sitting together, ready to start over,” said Durante, now recovering from surgery resulting from his fall in Fort Worth. “We were upset for a second, but then we were like this drove us crazy and made us want to try again.”
With a roster of 20 gymnasts bigger than ever, LSU should once again be at the heart of the South East Conference and national title discussions. The Tigers play Friday’s season opener against Centenary (5:45 p.m., SEC Network) ranked No.5 in the pre-season gymnastics coaches poll.
“I think sometimes a team needs to have something that sharpens the vision,” said Clark, entering his second season as LSU’s solo head coach after sharing that role with DD Breaux in 2020. “There is value in things when you can identify the mistakes that you could get away with without paying a price. Then, when you pay the price, it’s easier to make them change things.
“When we come back then, they will find out that they know what it looks like. “
The old guard
The LSU squad is deeper than ever with the return of five seniors for a fifth year of NCAA competition granted due to the pandemic: Durante, Reagan Campbell, Bridget Dean, Christina Desiderio and Sarah Edwards. Only Durante and Edwards felt likely to return at the end of last season, but after 2021 ended they decided to go one more run.
“I love gymnastics so much,” Durante said in a recent interview posted on the LSU website. “I know that once I’m done here, I’ll never do gymnastics again. I couldn’t think of a reason not to at least give it a try when the opportunity presented itself. If I didn’t like sports I wouldn’t come back because my body is definitely ready to do it. But it’s all worth it.
LSU’s top gymnasts are the now junior and sophomore duo of Kiya Johnson and Haleigh Bryant. The former won the SEC Floor Championship with a perfect 10, while Bryant shared the SEC Jumping Title with classmate Elena Arenas, and then won the NCAA Jumping Championship. Although Clark has said he expects to take Johnson slowly to the ground due to a chronic Achilles tendon problem, they and Schennikova will ultimately be LSU’s most likely performers (four events).
The new comers
The Tigers have three freshmen for 2022: Aleah Finnegan, KJ Johnson and Tori Tatum. Finnegan, the younger sister of great LSU Sarah Finnegan who was somewhat lucky to be part of the US team for the Tokyo Olympics, is most noteworthy. Tatum was a double junior Olympic champion.
Keep an eye on …
Junior Kai Rivers, absent the entire 2021 season due to an Achilles tendon injury.
“She’s a competitor,” said Clark. “You know that when you put her out there most of the time you’ll have a successful routine or a quality routine. It’s just wired that way. She thrives on competition.
The retirement of longtime assistant coach Bob Moore in May and the transition from volunteer coach and former Ashleigh Clare-Kearney-Thigpen, volunteer coach and former LSU All-American, to associate athletic director, paved the way for two new assistants. Clark hired the husband / wife team of Garrett Griffeth and Courtney McCool Griffeth (a 2004 Olympian who competed under Clark in Georgia) from Utah. Garrett holds the official paid position while Courtney is technically a volunteer coach, like Clare-Kearney Thigpen before her, but Clark said he sees the two as full-time on staff. Due to NCAA rules, Courtney is not allowed to recruit on the road.
Each coach has an event specialty. Clark trains bars, former Tiger All-American beam and returning assistant Ashleigh Gnat, Garrett Griffeth’s chest and Courtney Griffeth’s floor.
Schennikova said Courtney made minor but important changes to LSU’s floor choreography.
“She made sure we liked her, and if you like her, you’re going to perform better,” Schennikova said. “She took her time and put this little detail so that we could show it.”
New playoff format
The NCAA will feature a basketball tournament-like format for gymnastics for the 2022 Championship. As before, there will be nine teams across four regions, with the top two teams advancing to the NCAA Semi-Finals.
For the first time, the NCAA has added an extra day of rest to the regional and national rounds. The regional ones will be held March 30-31 and April 2 in Auburn, Illinois, NC State and Washington. The NCAA Semifinals will once again take place at Dickies Arena in Fort Worth, Texas on April 14, with four teams advancing to the NCAA Finals on April 16.
Four LSU gymnastics to watch
KIYA JOHNSON, Jr.
One of the nation’s top all-rounders, Johnson won the 2021 SEC floor title, was 2021 SEC Specialist of the Year and has eight career All-American accolades. The Achilles tendon injury could keep her off the ground for part of 2022.
HALEIGH BRYANT, Soph.
Part of LSU’s 1-2 punch with Johnson, Bryant had a brilliant freshman season, finishing as the NCAA and SEC vault champion with two perfect 10s and 14 individual titles. Still, I had to overcome a few critical falls to the ground.
ALEAH FINNEGAN, P.
The younger sister of former LSU great Sarah Finnegan, Aleah was a member of the 2019-21 U.S. National Team and was considered a dark horse for the Tokyo Olympics. The top member of LSU’s freshman class.
OLIVIA DUNNE, Soph.
Having signed some of the most lucrative NIL deals of any athlete in the country, Dunne is looking to compete more in 2022 after limiting himself to contributing to bars last season due to lingering COVID-19 issues.
LSU 2022 GYMNASTICS ALIGNMENT
NAME Height class Hometown
Elena Arenas 5-1 Soph. Athens, Georgia.
Sierra Ballard 5-2 Soph. Mandeville
Chase Brock 5-4 Soph. Atlanta
Haleigh Bryant 5-5 Soph. Crow, North Carolina
Reagan Campbell 5-1 Sr. * Dallas
Rebecca D’Antonio 5-0 Sr. New Orleans
Bridget Dean 5-2 Graduated. Fort Myers, Florida
Christina Desiderio 5-0 Graduated. Hackettstown, New Jersey
Olivia Dunne 5-6 Soph. Hillsdale, New Jersey
Sami Durante 5-1 graduate. Athens, Georgia.
Sarah Edwards 4-11 Sr. * Ocean Springs, Miss.
Aleah Finnegan 5-4 Fr. Lee’s Summitt, Missouri
Kiya Johnson 5-2 Jr. Dallas
KJ Johnson 5-0 Fr. Dallas
Lexi Nibbs 5-3 Jr. Houston
Maddie Rau 5-0 Jr. Houston
Kai Rivers 5-3 Jr. Detroit
Kamryn Ryan 5-2 Jr. Luling
Alyona Schennikova 5-5 Jr. Evergreen, Colorado
Tori Tatum 5-6 Fr. Chanhassen, Minnesota.
* -indicates the fifth year of terminal
LSU 2022 GYMNASTICS CALENDAR
Centenary Friday 5:45 p.m. SEC Network
January 14 at Missouri 7 p.m. SECNetwork +
January 21 Arkansas 7:45 p.m. SEC Network
January 28 in Georgia at 6 p.m. SEC Network
February 5 Auburn 2:45 p.m. ESPNU
February 11 in Florida at 5 p.m. SEC Network
February 18 Alabama 7:45 p.m. ESPNU
February 25 at Texas Woman’s 6 p.m. LSC Network (online)
March 4 Kentucky 7:15 p.m. SECNetwork +
March 11 Utah 7:15 p.m. SECRéseau +
March 19 at the SEC Championships @ TBA SEC Network
March 31 and April 2 NCAA Regionals # TBD ESPN3 (online)
April 14-16 NCAA Championships TBD, noon ABC
@ -in Birmingham, Alabama.
# -in Auburn, Alabama; Champaign, Illinois; Raleigh, North Carolina; Seattle
SEC Championship Tickets Now On Sale
BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Tickets for all sessions are now on sale for the 2022 SEC Gymnastics Championship on March 19 at Legacy Arena in Birmingham, Ala.
Tickets range from $ 25 to $ 40 (plus service charges) and provide access to both sessions of the championship. The 5-8 seeds compete in session I at 2:30 p.m., with the seeds 1-4 competing in session II at 7:00 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased online at SECSports.com or through the Legacy Arena box office.