December 27, 2013
#5 LSU Preview
LSU enters 2014 still basking in one of the all-time best years for the program in 2013 during which the Tigers spent the regular season beating perennial favorites and matching or nearly matching the scores from the top teams in the country. They reached Super Six without much fuss or worry at all and came in as a potential dark horse for the title. In fact, had they vaulted up to the potential they had shown throughout the season, they could have finished as a high as second, which would have been a complete coup for the program.
While no one will deny that vault and floor rather unsurprisingly made up a significant portion of the path to success, bars began to come into line last season with the team breaking 49.4 on the event for the first time since 2009. Progressing on weaknesses was one of the most encouraging aspects of LSU's 2013, as was the fact that they did so with significant underclassman contribution. There are a couple holes to fill on beam this year, but other than that, the team has lost little and will look for opportunities to shore up lineups and leapfrog last year's quality. A big potential leapfrogger will be freshman Ashleigh Gnat who comes in as one of the top L10 recruits in the country and can factor in the AA, including breaking into those already deep vault and floor lineups.
Judging by the team the Tigers have put together, they are fully capable or repeating last year's scores and results. They just aren't losing enough gymnasts to expect any significant regression, but it will be interesting to watch if the upward trajectory established on bars and beam continues or plateaus this season.
It's LSU and vault. This team has more power and options than it knows what to do with. For most of the teams previewed so far, I've been judging vault on the potential to go 49.400, which lately has been the standard separating the competitive vaulting teams from the uncompetitive ones. In the case of LSU, however, we can look higher than that. This team is certainly capable of repeating as #1 on vault, and we can expect 49.5s from time to time this year.
Making the vault lineup will be the challenging part. Rheagan Courville is NCAA champion and should bring her preposterous distance back to the anchor position for a weekly 9.9+, and prime supporting candidates include Sarie Morrison, who came on strong as a vaulter last year and received a 10, and Ashleigh Gnat, who brings with her a very strong 1.5 (that she opens out of) that can go 9.900 with a good landing. All three should feature. The team could very well stick with the rest of last year's lineup and stay in the realm of 49.4s and 49.5s with Maliah Mathis and Jessie Jordan getting 9.875-9.900 and Kaleigh Dickson, who is a good sticker in that first spot but doesn't have the distance to get the same scores as the others.
But there's no need to stay with the same group because LSU also has Britney Ranzy, who didn't make the lineup last year but was the vault star at Oregon State for 9.9s. It seems crazy that she wouldn't vault regularly for any team. There's also Jessica Savona, who had a DTY as an elite, Lloimincia Hall, who is no slouch, and potentially Sydney Ewing, who scored well on vault in JO. LSU has the options to be very discerning about which 9.875+ vaults come in.
The 2013 season marked a huge turning point for LSU on bars, but it is still a work in progress. On the good days, the handstands and angles were so much stronger than they have been recently, to the point where LSU wasn't dropping much on bars compared to the top teams, but just as often they were showing up with missed-handstand festivals for 9.7s. Seeing a consistency in the cleanliness is an important factor as we continue to evaluate the ascension of LSU's bars.
As she has been for years, Sarie Morrison remains the top bars worker on the team. How many times has she saved them? But crucially, Rheagan Courville made major strides as the season progressed in 2013 to become a top-level supporting routine for 9.875s-9.900s, and the introduction of Randii Wyrick provided the potential for that third, reliable 9.850, as she went sub-9.8 just once after January. That's scoring consistency they haven't had for years outside the top spot or so.
Those three should help keep the rotation moderately healthy, but there are still some 9.7y concerns in the first half, compounded by the fact that this is the area of least contribution from the freshmen. (Shae Zamardi was supposed to be the new bars worker, but have we heard anything from her?) I wouldn't be at all surprised to see an identical lineup to last season including Dickson, Jordan, and Ranzy, though Gnat may also appear here. This begs the question, can this team continue to improve on bars if they stay with the same lineup, or have we seen the extent of the jump? There will be some struggle days, but the back half of the lineup should save adequate scores the majority of the time.
Let the trend of discussing beam problems continue. Beam was the weakest event last year for LSU. Join the very extensive club. They managed a couple days of 49.3s toward the end of the season, but more often 49.1 was considered a good meet. That won't cut it. Plus, this is the area of greatest routine loss with Taylor and Garcia exiting the first half of the lineup, so there's cause for concern.
In truth, this lineup is all about Courville, with her beautiful arabian and hit splits, saving the score as often as she can. She needs to get an 11 every week. She and Jessie Jordan should return to the 5th and 6th positions this year, but they will get a little help this year from Ashleigh Gnat so that they don't have to do all the work themselves to cover up 9.750s. The first thing I noticed about Gnat's JO beam work is how solid she is, and that's a quality LSU will slurp up with a soup spoon. If Gnat can score around where Jordan has been scoring, her routine could be the fulcrum to lift up the Tigers. While beam is not Gnat's strongest event, it could be her most important event.
In the early-lineup land of "please just get a 9.800," Hall has been a consistent member of the team here, so even though she always looks like she's about to throw up during her routine, expect her to return to the lineup. The dance elements often bump her score down, but she can pull out a 9.825. Dickson has been similar, but LSU will need to find some others who can hit. Sydney Ewing maybe? Ranzy? Savona? I'm far from sold on these options. The person I'd really like is to see Randii Wyrick, since I thought beam was her strongest event in JO, showing off that great line, but we've barely heard a peep from her on beam since she arrived. Nonetheless, that would be my pick. Expect some trial and error at the beginning of the year. If they can get early 9.8s to build toward a consistent total in the 49.2s, they'll take it, but finding those six hits could be a journey.
So, just keep everything the same? There's little to say about LSU and floor because it's just good and constantly so. Floor was a great event for 49.4s-49.5s last year, and every member of the lineup is back. Ergo, it should be a great event for 49.4s-49.5s once again. Hall is Hall. Courville is a star. Savona has huge difficulty for 9.900, Mathis has that DLO, Jordan is lovely. LSU should be perfectly content with that group and should be among the best teams in the nation again.
Now, there could still be an upgrade. Ashleigh Gnat might very well break in here with her excellent pike full in, big power, and steady landings to be another chance for a 9.9. The team should have six legitimately realistic 9.9s, which provides a few luxuries. First, not everyone has to be good at every meet. In a rotation of stars, there will be big scores even if one of the 9.9 girls loses it. Also, they can rest people throughout the season without sacrificing a score. There's no pressure to throw out someone who might be battling an injury.
LSU is yet another team that can exclusively ride vault and floor to something close to 197. As long as they are putting up consistently and resolutely OK scores on the other events, they will have a healthy season and could contend for Super Six based solely on that. But after last season's performance, this team should have stronger aspirations that simply being in the hunt for Super Six along with the other teams ranked 4-9. If LSU's season is all about the big vault and floor scores, they'll be sitting ducks to be passed up by the likes of Michigan and Utah with beam improvements.
To make that #5 ranking, to be sure of reaching Super Six again, LSU will need to have consistently strong other events, and that's what we'll have to watch this year. The bars rotation needs to continue its trend of improvement, and beam needs to see at least three people who can believably go 9.875. If that happens, feel comfortable about seeing LSU on the final day again.