Fourth-ranked LSU tries to win its fourth straight SEC gymnastics championship meet Saturday

They are rested having not competed since March 5.

They are completely healthy, something they have rarely been heading into the postseason.

They have been ready since more than a year ago when they learned the entire postseason had been canceled by the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

No. 4 ranked LSU, which has won the last three SEC gymnastic championship meets in 2017, 2018 and 2019, hope to make it four consecutive titles Saturday in the Von Braun Center at Huntsville, Ala.

The SEC Network will televise the meet while SEC Network+ will televise continuous live streams on each individual event, a quad box simultaneously streaming all four events and will stream the post-meet award ceremony,

Even without 16th ranked Georgia, which announced Thursday it won’t compete due to positive COVID-19 tests and contact tracing within the program, the rest of the seven-team field is ranked in the top 25 led by co-No. 1 Florida.

“It has been good to step back and get back our focus, which is getting better every week,” LSU senior Sami Durante said of the two-week break from competition after the Tigers ended the regular season March 5 with a home win against Missouri. “This (SEC) meet is always more exciting because there are so many good teams. You just go in there and have a good time.”

LSU head coach Jay Clark, a long-time Tigers’ assistant who took over this season when the legendary D-D Breaux retired last September, set his lineups all season to be competitive yet preserve the health of key gymnasts such as sophomore Kiya Johnson.

Johnson, last season’s SEC Freshman of the Year, under previous LSU head coach D-D Breaux, had an Achilles tendon after a rupture prior to her enrollment in 2019-20. This season, she has competed in the all-around in just three of eight meets.

With Johnson entered in all four events, there’s a good chance that the Tigers could gone 8-0 in the regular season instead of 5-3 with consecutive narrow losses to Florida, Alabama and Kentucky.

But Clark’s philosophy is to be as injury-free as possible in the postseason.

“This is the healthiest team we’ve had going into the SEC (championships),” Tigers’ senior Sarah Edwards said. “Eight meets can bang up your body, but everybody is well. It’s awesome to see our very complete team to put our best gymnastics out there.”

That’s what Clark is hoping because it’s something he planned when he became head coach.

“It was definitely in our mind every year, but this year was unique (because of COVID-19),” Clark said. “We had to account for the fact they all had 5½, 6-month layoffs where they really didn’t have access to do much of anything.

“My whole M.O. is I like to put a plan on paper that is milestone-oriented. It’s not rigid in nature, but it’s an outline of what we’d like to do hitting milestones on certain dates. The challenge this year was to figure out what those dates looked like.

“I knew we’d start a bit slower this year than we have in the past in terms of opening meet. I said back then we were two or three weeks behind. We were able to put a plan on paper and stick to it for the most part.

“Every season has a pace. Each season is different and each team is different in terms of what they can tolerate and where you’d like to get them. I don’t know if we’ve hit the mark perfectly, but we’ve done a good job at keeping them at a reasonable pace and progressing well throughout the year.”

LSU’s depth, especially with a talented group of freshmen and sophomores, allows Clark to not overwork his gymnasts.

While the senior class has been solid and provided key scores in certain events, the Tigers’ best all-around gymnast this season has been freshman Haleigh Bryant.

Ranked nationally in the top eight in four events including third in the floor exercise and fifth on the balance beam, Bryant has assured herself of winning the league’s Freshman of the Year honors. She was named the SEC Freshman of the Week after five of eight meets. She was also named the top gymnast in the league after the Tigers’ road win at Arkansas.

Johnson has had her moments. She recorded a pair of perfect 10s in her first and last of the three floor exercises in which she competed in this season.

She and Bryant are LSU’s all-around contestants in the conference championships. They may be joined by sophomore Alyona Shchennikobva, the Tigers’ most improved gymnast this season.

Clark has said Shchennikova could be in the all-around if he includes her in the beam lineup.

Besides defending its SEC title, LSU wants to maintain its top four national ranking which would assure the Tigers of hosting an NCAA Regional on April 2-3.

LSU will be in the 7 p.m. night rotation on Saturday along with Florida, No. 8 ranked Alabama and No. 9 Arkansas.

The Tigers are ranked the top five nationally in all four events as is Florida.

LSU will start its rotation on the vault, in which the Tigers are ranked third nationally. Then it’s the unparallel bars and the balance beam, in which LSU is ranked fifth nationally in both. LSU finishes on the floor exercise, an event it is ranked third nationally.

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