2021 LSU Gymnastics Preview: Tigers open season Friday night at home vs. Arkansas

Haleigh Bryant is one of LSU's five freshmen making their college debuts in the Tigers' 2021 opener vs. Arkansas on Friday night in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center Photo by Brandon Gallego

The last time LSU hired a gymnastics coach, gas was 63 cents a gallon, the average cost to buy a house was $62,500 and disco music was the rage.

And Jay Clark, who was named head coach this past August, was in the 6th grade.

The person he replaced is D-D Breaux, who resigned after 43 years as LSU’s one and only gymnastics coach. She was the longest tenured coach in any sport in the history of the SEC, taking over the program in 1978.

Now Clark, who served as co-head coach with Breaux last season at her insistence, is making what he calls a seamless transition as the Tigers open their eight-meet SEC opponents only 2021 season vs. Arkansas Friday night at 7:15 in the Pete Maravich Assembly Center.

“I’m grateful for the opportunity,” Clark said. “It doesn’t seem different in terms of day to day operations but the larger than life personality of D-D not being in the room is different.”

Breaux hired Clark as associate head coach and recruiting director two months after he resigned under pressure in May 2012 as Georgia’s head coach. For eight years, Clark worked alongside Breaux’s staff which he happily inherited and hired former LSU gymnast Ashleigh “Bugs” Gnat as an assistant.

A solid six-woman senior class, sophomore Kiya Johnson who was the SEC’s Freshman of the Year last season and five talented freshmen has Clark believing the Tigers have one of their deepest teams ever.

“We’re in a good place and I like the way this team is rounding out,” Clark said. “If we can just keep the consistency over the next several weeks, we’re going to have a lot more options.”

Senior Sarah Edwards, whose 2020 season was cut short by a severe high ankle sprain, concurs with Clark’s roster assessment.

“We have so much depth on each event,” Edwards said, “that the coaches honestly are saying, `Don’t get too secure with your lineup spot.’ We have so much talent you could go from being first (in an event rotation) to being an alternate.”

LSU’s No. 1 option in almost all four events is Johnson, who was so good last year that she was probably overused while the Tigers went through some injury problems leading into the season. She had one stretch where she competed in all four events for nine straight meets.

“Week in and week out having to do every event is really taxing on your body and your brain mentally,” Johnson said. “I tried to stay as healthy as possible, but there were times when my body hurt. It was hard to get through.”

Clark said he’ll try to keep Johnson fresh as much as possible this season.

“We’re taking a different tact this year with her trying to preserve her health, especially her calves and her Achilles tendons,” Clark said. “Since we have more depth, we should have the luxury of being able to pick and choose some spots for her as we get into the season a bit.”

For instance, incoming freshmen Elena Arenas, Haleigh Bryant, Olivia Dunn and sophomore Alyona Shchennikova (who sat out last season with a torn Achilles) all have the ability to compete in the all-around.

“Those are four options we didn’t have last year,” Clark said. “That’s the biggest difference between this year and last year. By the time we got to this point last year, we were walking a tightrope from a health perspective. We didn’t have many options beyond six or seven on each event. Some of them were nicked up.

“This freshman class has provided us with more options and more depth that should give us more survivability. Last year we came through a rough spot and were beginning to climb out of that a little bit when this whole thing shut down (because of start the COVID-19 pandemic).

“This team, because of the depth – knock on wood – can stave off any of those situations as they arise.”

The biggest unforeseen threat is COVID-19. Whether testing positive or simply quarantined because of contact tracing, a roster can become quickly depleted.

“We’ve learned we have to be very flexible, very nimble and very able to react quickly in this environment,” Clark said. “I’m a planner by nature, but this fall has beat me to death with a stick as far as changing the way I think. We do have contingency plans who will be the next person in if a person goes out.

“This whole thing has been about trying to stop the wind from blowing in a lot of ways. We’re no different than anybody else except that we’re highly scrutinized, highly tested every single week adhering to guidelines that are strictly enforced policies.

“We can’t get too far ahead of ourselves. What we know is where we are right now.” 

EVENT BREAKDOWNS

FLOOR EXERCISE

There’s no doubt the Tigers’ boss of the floor exercise is sophomore KIYA JOHNSON, who averaged an incredible 9.950 last season, which is the highest average score by an LSU gymnast in any event in 2020. And there is a ton of experience in this event for the Tigers. Seniors SARAH EDWARDS and BRIDGET DEAN have consistently scored 9.8 plus and senior CHRISTINA DESIDERIO averaged 9.785 last season in five meets filling the gap created with Edwards’ season-ending ankle injury in the fourth competition of the season. Before her injury, Edwards started the season with a career-high 9.900 in the event against Arizona. Senior OLIVIA GUNTER averaged 9.729 in six 2020 meets.

VAULT

Senior SARAH EDWARDS has almost 30 college meets worth of experience in the vault, an event she earned All-America honors with 9.8875 in a 2019 NCAA semifinal. She’s twice posted a career-high of 9.950 in the event, a score that KIYA JOHNSON last year surpassed with perfect 10.0 at the GymQuarters. Johnson averaged a team-high 9.907 in the event, scoring under 9.900 just twice late in the season when she was fatigued from competing in all four events for nine straight meets. Edwards calls Johnson “legendary” and believes freshman HALEIGH BRYANT is “crazy good” in the event. Edwards expects sophomores ALYONA SHCHENNIKOVA and KAMRYN RYAN to contribute heavily.

UNEVEN BARS

KIYA JOHNSON, who averaged 9.853 in the bars, is LSU’s leadoff performer in the event. “Compositionally, her routine is pretty short and sweet,” LSU coach Jay Clark said. “She’s also maybe the most consistent person in the gym on that event. You want that first person to be the stabilizer.” The No. 2 spot in the bars lineup is the biggest question. It probably will be senior BRIDGET DEAN if one of her ailing shoulders doesn’t bother her too much. She averaged 9.831 in the event in all 11 meets last year. Dean has plenty of tough competition for the second rotation slot from freshmen ELENA ARENAS and CHASE BROCK. Then there’s freshman OLIVIA DUNNE and senior SAMI DURANTE.

BALANCE BEAM

Senior CHRISTINA DESIDERIO “has been groomed since her freshman year to be first up on the balance beam,” Clark said. “When she gets up there, you pretty much know what you’re going to get most of the time,” said Clark of Desiderio, who averaged 9.822 in the event in seven meets in 2020. Fellow seniors REAGAN CAMPBELL (9.830 average in all 11 2020 meets) and BRIDGET DEAN (9.755 in 11 2020 meets) are rock solid and sophomore KIYA JOHNSON (9.835 in 10 2020 meets) is certainly no slouch, either. Clark said freshmen OLIVIA DUNNEELENA ARENAS and HALEIGH BRYANT may get some early shots on the beam. “Haleigh Bryant is really, really strong on the balance beam as well,” Clark said.

SCHEDULE (All times Central)

Jan. 8 (Friday) home vs. Arkansas, 7:15 p.m. (SEC Network)

Jan. 15 (Friday) at Arkansas, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network)

Jan. 22 (Friday) home vs. Georgia, 7:15 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)

Jan. 29 (Friday) at Auburn, 4 p.m. (ESPN2)

Feb. 12 (Friday) home vs. Florida, 6:15 p.m. (SEC Network)

Feb. 19 (Friday) at Alabama, 7:30 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)

Feb. 26 (Friday) at Kentucky, 6 p.m. (SEC Network)

Mar. 5 (Friday) home vs. Missouri, 7:15 p.m. (SEC Network Plus)

Mar. 20 (Saturday) SEC Championships, New Orleans, Smoothie King Center

Apr. 2 (Friday) NCAA Regional 2nd Round, campus site to be determined

Apr. 3 (Saturday) NCAA Regional finals, campus site to be determined

Apr. 16 (Friday) NCAA semifinals, Fort Worth, Texas, Dickies Arena

Apr. 17 (Saturday) NCAA finals, Fort Worth, Texas, Dickies Arena

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