HALEIGH’S COMET: Freshman Haleigh Bryant is streaking red-hot across the LSU gymnastics atmosphere

Sometimes, it’s not best for a coach to overcomplicate a recruiting pitch to a prospect.

There are occasions when the hard sell is more a turnoff than turn-on.

So, when LSU head coach Jay Clark was an assistant under former head coach D-D Breaux, he came across an eighth grader named Haleigh Bryant and gave her his best recruiting one-liner.

“Jay said, `You look good in purple,’” said Haleigh, who happened to be wearing a purple leotard that day.

Bryant agreed. She looked excellent in purple, which is one of LSU’s primary colors.

“It stuck with me ever since,” said Haleigh, an LSU freshman who has already been named the SEC’s Freshman of the Week four times and the league’s Gymnast of the Week once in her first seven collegiate meets.

Haleigh won the all-around in LSU’s victories over Arkansas, Georgia and Auburn and placed second in a loss at Alabama. Also, she has won or tied for first in the vault three times and in the floor exercise twice.

She’s ranked second sixth nationally in floor exercise, sixth in the all-around and is eighth in the vault.

From the moment three-year-old Haleigh was introduced to the sport when she went with a friend to parent’s night out at Georgia All-Star Gymnastics in Woodstock, Ga., she knew she’d found her niche.

“I was like `This is the sport I want to do for the rest of my life’,” Haleigh said. “I always loved going to the gym.”

Haleigh’s parents, father Terry and mother Trisha, wanted her to diversify her sporting interests. Terry played basketball and football in high school and earned some Division I scholarships. Trisha played college softball at UNC Charlotte.

Terry coached Haleigh in basketball and soccer. She loved her dad but disliked playing those sports.

“Basketball and soccer weren’t anything I wanted to do,” Haleigh said. “I’d do basketball on Mondays, go to gymnastics on Tuesdays and I’d always looked forward to that. By the time I got to soccer on Wednesdays, sometimes I’d say, `I’m not going, I don’t want to go’ because I was looking forward to gymnastics.’

“My dad finally saw the joy I had for gymnastics, it’s what made me happy and that’s all he wanted. I think he saw like `This is what she wants to do and I’m going to support her forever.’”

Support soon advanced to sacrifice. As Haleigh piled up wins and honors and trophies, it became evident she was an elite athlete who needed advanced training.

In 2011, Haleigh’s family moved from the Atlanta area to Cornelius, N.C. so she could train at the Everest Gymnastics Training Center in Huntersville, N.C.

Even before Haleigh and her parents moved two states north of Georgia, Clark had his eye on her when he was first a University of Georgia assistant before becoming the Bulldogs’ head coach.

“The first time I saw her, she was seven or eight years old,” Clark said. “You could tell she was a pretty special athlete.”

Clark was released by Georgia after the 2012 season and immediately hired Breaux as LSU’s associate head coach and recruiting coordinator. He tapped into the fertile recruiting grounds and gymnastic training centers that created a pipeline of talent that helped Georgia win five straight NCAA national championships from 2005 to 2009.

One of those places was Everest Gymnastics and it’s where Haleigh said Clark won her over with his “you look good purple” comment.

Clark claims he doesn’t recall what he said, but it was strong enough for Haleigh to pledge her gymnastic heart to LSU after her September 2015 unofficial visit to Baton Rouge.

Even though the Tigers’ state of the art gymnastics training facility wouldn’t open until the following February, she was sold.

“The academics are amazing and the coaches are outstanding,” Haleigh said. “I’d get to train in this amazing facility every day. I’m like, `This is where I want to be, this is where I want to spend the next four years of my life doing what I love.’”

She committed to the Tigers as an eighth grader and never wavered.

Once on campus this past fall, Haleigh immediately impressed her veteran teammates.

“She doesn’t hold herself a freshman,” LSU senior Sami Durante said. “She comes to the gym, does her work and handles her school and her social life. In and out of the gym, she’s very mature.”

Like the way Haleigh handled one of the few mistakes she’s made in her young college career.

At the end of a night of superb gymnastics as No. 2 LSU hosted No. 1 Florida on Feb. 12, the outcome of the meet hinged on Haleigh’s floor exercise. She needed to score a 9.850 for LSU to win, which seemed almost a certainty.

Haleigh breezed through most of her floor routine flawlessly. But on her last tumbling pass, her hand slipped as she planted for her handspring. She tried to save it, but landed short, fell back into a sitting position, scored 9.425 and the Tigers lost.

Clark and all of Haleigh’s teammates immediately made it a point to tell her there were many other mistakes from the entire team all night, and that she was not responsible for the loss.

“She’s a mature kid,” Clark said. “I asked her how she was when we got back in the gym on Sunday and she said, “I’m good, we just need to get back to work.”

Unlike some athletes who run and hide after their worst moments, Haleigh discussed her fall with the media on the Tigers’ weekly Zoom call.

“I have to move on from the mistake,” she said. “Whatever happened, happened. I’m going into this weekend (in a meet at Alabama) forgetting about it.”

And she did, nailing her floor routine with a score of 9.95 in the Tigers’ loss vs. the Crimson Tide.

“Haleigh is really amazing,” said LSU sophomore Kiya Johnson, who was last season’s SEC Freshman of the Year. “She is so fun to watch anywhere we do gymnastics, whether it’s the PMAC or in the gym.”

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Ron Higgins

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