Planting new plants and flowers in her garden has long been LSU co-head gymnastics coach D-D Breaux’s annual season-ending rite of passage.
She’s used it to decompress after chasing Southeastern Conference championships or an elusive first national title, especially after finishing second in three of the last four NCAA championship meets prior to this year’s coronavirus-shortened season.
So, the past month of not being in her usual postseason competitive mode has been strange for someone who’s the longest tenured coach in any sport in SEC history. It’s meant more time expanding her garden rather than the Tigers’ trophy case.
“I’ve been doing this for 43 years,” the 67-year old Breaux said. “When SEC (championship) weekend passed, the NCAA regional weekend passed, I thought `This is what it feels like when your team doesn’t qualify.’ I’ve done more planting in my yard. I usually do most of my yard fixing up after the national championships. I’ve been pretty busy in my yard and my house.”
Breaux has also heeded the call from the office of Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards in producing public service announcements touting social distancing to combat COVID-19. She also is giving a voice to local restaurants who have ramped up to-go order services.
Moreover, Breaux volunteered at local schools as part of the East Baton Rouge Parish School Board’s program to help distribute meals to children.
“Besides that, I’m trying to stay in touch with my team,” Breaux said, “I’ve filled in some blanks for the Governor. It’s an amazing effort and to be a part of this has been a humbling experience.”
When the coronavirus pandemic shut down college sports March 12, LSU was 11-2 and ranked sixth nationally. The Tigers had already been tabbed as a No. 2 seed in the SEC championship meet March 21, had qualified for the NCAA regionals at UCLA on April 3-4 and were a good bet to make their 18th trip in the last 19 years to the April 17-18 national championships.
“We felt like we were in a good place,” said Breaux, whose program earned its 31st Top 10 finish. “We had injuries and struggled throughout the season, but we were able to rest kids and focus on the rehabilitation and getting kids back in the lineup. We felt pretty positive about where we were and who we were going to be able to get back in our lineup.”
LSU started the season 3-2 with consecutive SEC losses in late January to then-No. 2 Florida and then-No. 7 Alabama.
Pre-existing injuries, coupled with in-season setbacks, made Breaux’s work quite challenging in assembling a healthy, competitive lineup.
It began with freshman Kiya Johnson battling to return to form after suffering a ruptured Achilles’ tendon in high school. Also, freshman Kai Rivers, a Junior Olympic champion, arrived on campus with an ankle injury. Following a fall in practice, she wasn’t available to the team and recently had surgery.
Freshman Alyona Shchennikova also suffered an injury to her Achilles’ tendon during her high school senior season. She underwent surgery and completed rehabilitation in time to compete in a few meets on the balance beam and was practicing on the vault.
LSU lost the services of junior Sarah Edwards to a high-ankle sprain in the Jan. 24 loss against Florida and was one of three competitors – joining Rivers and Shchennikova – that missed the Tigers’ rare home loss against Alabama.
It opened the door for reserves such as junior Sami Durante, who came into the season with a knee injury, to take over for Edwards on the vault. Junior Cristina Desiderio also contributed on the vault.
“We had kids that had stepped up and made huge progress and great contributions,” Breaux said. “There were kids we thought would be sidelined most of the season. It’s a really good team and you’ve got to be really good to compete. We competed kids up, we had walk-ons that were able to make the lineup and compete.”
The makeshift lineup stopped the two-meet losing streak by nipping then-No. 22 Oregon State and Arizona State in Corvallis, Ore. It started a string of nine consecutive wins leading to what would have been Senior Night in LSU’s final home meet of the year on March 14 vs. Arizona State.
There’s usually plenty of emotions when LSU honors its seniors, which this season would have spotlighted Ruby Harold of Bristol, England and Kennedi Edney of Chino, Calif.
“We began to make lemonade,” Breaux explained in the face of the cancellation of the remainder of the season.
Breaux said because there was an inter-squad scrimmage scheduled the day before the last home date, she combined with fellow co-head coach Jay Clark to provide a competitive atmosphere and pay homage to the seniors.
Breaux said all the ingredients were in place for a final competition, having brought in the team’s smoke machine and lights for introductions along with revered public address announcer Mike Smith.
“We usually have a lot of people show up for those,” Breaux said. “Most of the kids’ families were there and we had a judge there and judged routines. We made it as official as we could.
“If any of the kids got 10s that day, we would be able to honor them on our (10.0 Club) wall. It’s important to the kids for them to have had a great performance at the inter-squad. We kind of treated it like it was a real competition. The kids enjoyed it. There was a whole lot of gratification.”
Edney, a two-time NCAA champion, headlined a list of four gymnasts this season that received All-American honors by finishing in the top 16 of their respective events.
Edney concluded her career as a 19-time All-American – the fourth most in school history – with an All-American showing in the vault (9.888) along with fellow senior Harold (9.8).
Johnson, the Region I Gymnast of the Year, was a three-time All-American this season in the vault (9.907), floor (9.95) and all-around (39.542), while junior Reagan Campbell earned such distinction on the beam (9.83).
“I felt like everybody in that group really gave us all they had,” Breaux said.
By season’s end, Breaux believed her team had re-gained momentum and were primed for another big postseason run.
“Getting those kids back at the end of the season, especially Alyona, would have made a huge difference in our scoring potential,” Breaux said. “We felt we could be the best team we could possibly be by the end of the season. We had created some depth and felt like we were fixing to be in the hunt for an SEC title again. There was no telling where we would go in the NCAA championships.”