No rise has been more immediate and dramatic than LSU's. Just a few years ago, LSU had a horrific 2011 season where everyone got a 9.700 and the team made no mark whatsoever, sputtering out of the Georgia regional with a distant 195.350. After that, everything changed. The Tigers returned to nationals in 2012 riding the increased depth provided by the Courville, Jordan, Hall class, and by 2013, they managed to turn things around on their traditional weaknesses, bars and beam, to become a true four-event team that can realistically challenge for a title. That year, they returned to Super Six for the first time since the Jackson/Clare-Kearney era, finishing 5th, then stepped up that result in 2014, finishing 3rd behind the Oklahoma/Florida tie in an all-time best result for the program.
LSU has never been better. While the 2014 team has a good argument as the most talented squad LSU has ever produced, the 2015 team may have a better one. There's every reason to have the highest expectations for this team. Making Super Six may have been a big deal for LSU in 2013, but they're past that now. Simply making the final, simply finishing 4th or 5th, is no longer good enough. They're in the hunt to win, and while they still have work to do to catch up with the depth of 9.9s from Florida and Oklahoma, an LSU championship is not an unrealistic or strange notion. They can do it and should at least put up a hearty challenge. Any finish worse than 3rd would be a disappointment. Welcome to the world of expectations.
The best argument in LSU's corner is that, when counting returning scores, they have the highest total in the country. The Tigers were pretty close to Florida and Oklahoma last year, and they have lost fewer valuable routines than either team. Not having Sarie Morrison on vault and bars will be an issue, but for the most part, the core is back and many of the lineups will end up looking very similar to last season. It's not a year of reinvention for LSU. It's a year of continuing on the same track and doing exactly what they did last year, only with fewer weird 9.8s at championships. Rheagan Courville and Jessie Jordan will lead the way in the all-around once again with three-event support from Ashleigh Gnat and potentially Britney Ranzy and spot contributions from Lloimincia Hall and Jessica Savona on floor. That's already a healthy pack of reliable 9.9s (probably about ten of them) from returning standouts, but we should also expect to see impressive moments from the freshmen Erin Macadaeg and Myia Hambrick. Both can contribute on multiple events, but most importantly, they should provide options on beam to beef up the depth on one of the team's traditional weaknesses that can't (and shouldn't) be one anymore.
Returning lineup — Rheagan Courville (9.940), Jessie Jordan (9.915), Ashleigh Gnat (9.890), Britney Ranzy (9.870)
LSU has a powerhouse reputation for a reason. When they're good, vault is usually why, and the last few seasons have been no exception. The Tigers finished the regular season ranked #1 on vault in 2014, which makes it easy to say, "Yes. LSU. Vault. Next." but it's important not to take events for granted. Evidence for that comes from the last two postseasons, where LSU's vaulting has been only OK and not as strong as it needs to be. You're LSU. Why is anyone vaulting a 9.825? Pull it together.
This year, LSU will once again be among the best vaulting teams and will receive plenty of those coveted 49.500s. Still, keep an eye on the depth because this is not a hugely huge group where 9.9s are popping out of every seam. The team has a few definite standouts who can get 9.950s, but those standouts will be relied upon to deliver each week. Rheagan Courville usually lands her yurchenko full somewhere in Texas. She has the best distance in the game, coupled with clean form, so her score usually comes down solely to landing control. She'll be in it for 10s. Ashleigh Gnat is extremely powerful, which we know because her 1.5 is way too easy. She finishes that vault crazy early, so we should expect control on landings. Jessie Jordan tends to compete early in the lineup, but her full is also top class and worthy of 9.9s, which it would probably get more often if she were later in the lineup. Britney Ranzy was in the Olympic mix in 2008 because of her vaulting, and I was pleased to her finally make the lineup full-time last year. The previous year it was more, how is LSU so good at vault that they don't even need to use Britney Ranzy?
Speaking of people finally making it into the vault lineup, have we just given up on Savona vaulting for this team? She was great at it once upon a time. Oh well. In the rest of the lineup, Hall is always an option (but probably for 9.825s) and transfer Scarlett Williams can provide a y1/2 for 9.850, but we could—should?—see the freshmen Macadaeg and Hambrick round out the competing six. Both have solid form and competitive height and distance and should live up to the expectations we have for LSU's vaulting. Without Morrison and Dickson (both of whom had RQSs of 9.9+), there's a chance for some regression from last season depending on how the freshmen perform, but if Courville and Gnat are doing their thing, it shouldn't be too much of a problem.
Returning lineup — Rheagan Courville (9.915), Britney Ranzy (9.885), Jessie Jordan (9.875), Randii Wyrick (9.845)
Because Sarie Morrison is no longer around, bars would seem a potential worry zone for LSU. That's probably why they're trying so hard to convince everyone that bars will be great this year. Note the title of the video at the top, "LSU Gymnastics 101 Excellent Bars." Well, if you do say so yourself. I'll be judge of that.
For several seasons in there, Morrison was the 9.9 in the lineup, so it's reasonable to wonder who will pick up that burden. The main proven 9.9 returning to the lineup comes from Rheagan Courville. Courville has noticeably stepped up her consistency of execution since she started at LSU (her toe shoot to high bar in particular is a bajillion times less dead-hangy than it used to be), which means she's much more likely to get 9.9s these days. She got seven 9.9s in 2014, up from two in 2013. Because Courville is back along with Jordan, Wyrick, and Ranzy (all of whom are usually 9.850-9.875 bars workers with a 9.900 or two for luck), there's no reason to expect a sudden LSU disaster on bars simply because Morrison is gone. They'll be fairly strong, and 49.300s are easily doable, with a couple random home 49.500s thrown in just to make the "OVERSCORED!" buzzards (who, me?) feel included and let us rant about amplitude.
The X factor that may dictate whether the Tigers are closer to the 49.3 side or the 49.5 side is Shae Zamardi. Zamardi was recruited as part of the 2013-2014 incoming class specifically for her bars routine, but it was clear from her pre-LSU performances that she would be a work in progress and a Jay Clark project. She showed a ton of potential, but her form was all over the place and would have been deducted like crazy. The Jay Clark project is showing signs of progress so far this preseason. Zamardi has toe point and a legit Markelov, but that double arabian dismount still slightly scares the crap out of me. I'm in wait-and-see territory with that routine, but in the market for a potential replacement Morrison, she's probably the 9.9iest nominee if it all comes together.
It's also interesting that Myia Hambrick is coming along on bars as a potential option because bars used to be her bad event and did not originally stand out as a place where she could contribute.
Returning lineup — Jessie Jordan (9.920), Rheagan Courville (9.905), Ashleigh Gnat (9.870), Sydney Ewing (9.840), Lloimincia Hall (9.840)
Without 9.9s from Morrison on bars and vault, it's reasonable to expect that LSU will either roughly maintain last year's form or regress somewhat on those events. I don't expect a significant infusion of brand new vault and bars scoring, but beam is a different story. Mark down 2015 as the year LSU becomes a beam team because this lineup it too talented not to be a beam team. Being happy with a 49.250 as in past years is not happening in 2015.
Last year, I talked a lot about LSU making significant strides on beam by finally having a big three. Couville, Jordan, and Gnat all could score 9.900, which made competitive totals much more realistic and provided an actual margin for error so that success wasn't solely dependent on a certain someone hitting her arabian. LSU had not enjoyed that luxury in recent seasons, when they were more concerned with cobbling together six people who might hit maybe potentially possibly. Having three big beam routines, however, is only half the battle. The emergence of Sydney Ewing as a consistent beamer, bringing a two-footed layout and reliable supporting 9.850s (which started to become 9.9s in the postseason), was a boost, and this year, the boosts continue. The addition of Erin Macadaeg helps make this a full lineup of beamers instead of half a lineup. Macadaeg has the precise acro skills and fully hit dance elements to join that 9.9 trio and comfortably make it a foursome. My only disappointment is seeing her downgrade all the way to a gainer pike dismount. That's a cop-out dismount for someone who has a pretty good double pike.
LSU hasn't been talking up Hambrick's beam as much as Macadaeg's, but Hambrick also has a lovely style and great potential on beam, and ideally that routine will pan out at some point this year. I hope Hambrick doesn't become another Randii Wyrick who should be amazing on beam but has never appeared. I still want Wyrick to make that beam lineup at some point, and I won't stop talking about it until she does.
Returning lineup — Lloimincia Hall (9.965), Rheagan Courville (9.935), Jessica Savona (9.895), Jessie Jordan (9.875), Ashleigh Gnat (9.870), Britney Ranzy (no RQS)
Last postseason, LSU got some inadvertently helpful practice for their 2015 floor performances when seniors Maliah Mathis and Kaleigh Dickson succumbed to injury and were unavailable for championships. That meant Gnat and Ranzy had to return to the lineup, putting the team's floor depth to the test, and both proved reliable for big scores. The collection of Hall, Courville, Savona, Gnat, Ranzy, and Jordan went 49.650/49.450/49.550 in the final three competitions of the season, and with all six returning to the team this season, is there a reason to mess with a successful formula? They were a good bet for 49.5s last year, and they should be again this year.
Obviously, the big routine in the lineup is Lloimincia Hall's, which has been hashed and rehashed so often over the last three seasons that I'm bored of talking about it. She'll get 10s. Case closed. Courville is right there with her, dropping into that double arabian landing for 9.950s, Savona has magnet feet on her tumbling for regular 9.900s, and the lineup as a whole is among those with a fair chance of putting up straight 9.9s at home for a downright crazy score. Perhaps the only problem for LSU is that Florida's floor and Oklahoma's floor are two of the other lineups capable of straight 9.9s. This year won't be a fight about who is good at floor, because they all are. It will be a fight about who is landing for 9.925s and who is landing for 9.875s. Keep in mind that LSU's score of 49.550 in Super Six last year was just the 4th-best floor score of the day. It's a jungle of 9.950s out there. Any slide is a problem and any bounce is devastating.
Those aforementioned six don't have to be the final lineup for LSU. They'll have a number of options, including the freshmen. Both tumble well with competitive difficulty and would contribute on most teams, but they may not be required to do so on this one.