Return To Glory: Coach Jay Clark is confident LSU gymnastics will rebound in 2023 season

No. 6 Tigers begin 2023 season Friday at No. 3 Utah

LSU gymnastics coach Jay Clark and the Tigers gymnastics team opens the 2023 season Friday at Utah. PHOTO BY: Jonathan Mailhes

LSU started slow last year, pulled it together and began putting up strong numbers – included among them, a pair of 198-plus scores — during the regular season, and that helped secure LSU’s place in the top six as postseason approached.

But, that’s when things started to fall apart, both literally and figuratively.

LSU faltered because it started making uncharacteristic mistakes on bars and beam.

“It was strange,” LSU coach Jay Clark said.

The mistakes were enough to keep LSU out of the top four at both the SEC Championship and NCAA
Regionals. And, LSU finished off the year ranked No. 18, the team’s lowest ranking in a decade.

Clark emphasized in the early fall 2022 that LSU is seeking redemption in 2023.

“They’re hungry, and they’re upset,” he said.

By late November, improved depth and how Clark hopes to use that depth will be the big key, he said. As always, health will be vital. It always is in this sport, but a healthy core of returners, plus a trio of standout freshmen along with seasoned veteran transfer Cammy Hall from Utah, mean LSU looks like it could be strong; it certainly has a solid rebuild foundation in place

But, this is the SEC.

Kentucky, Missouri and Auburn are now constant, legitimate postseason threats, so LSU is going to have to start and finish strong to regain its traditional place among the best of the SEC.

The Tigers looked strong during the regular season in 2022, ranking as high as fifth nationally. A jittery showing at the conference championship set the tone for a disappointing postseason, culminating in the team’s lowest finish in over a decade.

Clark firmly believes 2023 will be a different story at LSU, which begins the season ranked sixth in the preseason and at No. 3 Utah at 8 p.m. CST on Friday.

KEY LOSSES: Reagan Campbell, Rebecca D’Antonio, Bridget Dean, Christina Desiderio, Sami Durante, Sarah Edwards
KEY GAINS: ANNIE BEARD, ASHLEY COWAN, CAMMY HALL (UTAH), BRYCE WILSON

RETURNING FROM INJURY: TORI TATUM

VAULT
POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTORS: Haleigh Bryant (9.970 NQS), KIYA JOHNSON (9.915), KJ JOHNSON
(9.895), CAMMY HALL (9.880), ELENA ARENAS (9.860), KAI RIVERS (9.840 AVG), ALYONA SHCHENNIKOVA (9.785), CHASE BROCK, OLIVIA DUNNE, ALEAH FINNEGAN, ALEXIS JEFFREY, LEXI NIBBS, MADDIE
RAU, KAMRYN RYAN, TORI TATUM, ANNIE BEARD, ASHLEY COWAN, BRYCE WILSON

LSU boasts some of the best vaulters in the country, but excellent execution is what sets this lineup apart. Last season, All-American Kiya Johnson qualified as an individual in the nationals event, edging out teammate and 2021 NCAA vault champion Bryant.

In 2022, Bryce Wilson is one of the top vaulters in her recruiting class and scored three perfect 10s in high school. Whether she opts for the Yurchenko full or double full, she’ll definitely have a place in the top six.

Hall, the transfer from Utah, brings a big Yurchenko 1½ and a wealth of experience: She’s hit 30 of 37 career vaults and has a 9.950 career high. Overall, Wilson and Hall should fill in the gaps left by Edwards and Durante and then some.

BARS
POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTORS: HALEIGH BRYANT (9.930 NQS), ALYONA SHCHENNIKOVA (9.910), KIYA JOHNSON (9.875), OLIVIA DUNNE (9.865), ELENA ARENAS (9.775), ALEAH FINNEGAN (9.850 AVG), KAI RIVERS (9.845), CHASE BROCK, ALEXIS JEFFREY, KJ JOHNSON, TORI TATUM, ANNIE BEARD (injured), ASHLEY COWAN, BRYCE WILSON

Last season, The Tigers’ counting bars scores were generally strong throughout the regular season, but there were precious few meets where the entire lineup hit. That pervasive inconsistency came to a head during the postseason where half of the team’s scores were 9.700 or lower.

In 2023, Clark described the team as “really deep and talented on three events,” indicating bars remains a bit of a concern. Cowan, a freshman and a level 10 champion in the event, is a virtual lock thanks to high difficulty and crisp technique. With Rivers, a junior likely limited due to rotator cuff issues, the Tigers are going to have to turn to their less experienced members to fill in the gaps.

Wilson is best known for her stellar vaults, but she’s a strong bar worker in her own right. Sophomores
and former four-star recruits Jeffrey and Tatum didn’t compete last season but are certainly capable if healthy.

All things considered, LSU appears to be trending up here. Last season’s issues apparently had more to do with morale than anything else. Inexperience was clearly not an issue. A crop of talented newcomers may be just the thing to help a rebooting.

BEAM
POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTORS: KIYA JOHNSON (9.925 NQS), HALEIGH BRYANT (9.910), ALEAH FINNEGAN (9.900), KAI RIVERS (9.845 AVG), ELENA ARENAS (9.812), ALYONA SHCHENNIKOVA (9.800), SIERRA BALLARD, OLIVIA DUNNE, ALEXIS JEFFREY, KJ JOHNSON, KAMRYN RYAN, TORI TATUM, ANNIE BEARD (injured), ASHLEY COWAN, BRYCE WILSON

Beam was one of LSU’s better events at times last season. At times, though, it wasn’t. The Tigers turned in too many sub-9.700 scores during the regular season.

LSU is losing three key gymnasts from last season — including Desidero — but the Tigers have Beard, a freshman, to help soften the blow. Clark said he is also optimistic Rivers will be able to contribute on beam. If Clark and Rivers join Johnson, Bryant and Finnegan as lineup regulars, filling that sixth spot is going to be crucial. Arenas and Shchennikova have competed a handful of times with varying results, and Wilson has scored exceptionally well when she hit.

So, what does that mean in 2023? It’s too early to tell. Regardless of who ends up competing, LSU beam will have to adjust to changes.

FLOOR
POTENTIAL CONTRIBUTORS: KJ JOHNSON (9.905 NQS), ALEAH FINNEGAN (9.885), HALEIGH BRYANT (9.875), ALYONA SHCHENNIKOVA (9.860), OLIVIA DUNNE (9.845), KIYA JOHNSON (9.930 AVG), SIERRA BALLARD (9.762), ELENA ARENAS (9.487), SIERRA BALLARD, ALEXIS JEFFREY, TORI TATUM, ANNIE BEARD (injured), ASHLEY COWAN, BRYCE WILSON

Johnson and Bryant both dealt with chronic foot injuries last year, and LSU dropped from second to eighth in the rankings, however, the Tigers still managed to turn in a massive 49.775 season high.

This year, Beard and Wilson both bring big tumbling and beautifully extended leaps. Even if Bryant and Johnson are at full strength, the two freshmen are likely mainstays in this lineup along with KJ Johnson. Finnegan, Shchennikova and Dunne are competing for the final spot, it appears, with all
three currently about even.

So, what can you expect? It’s too early to tell. Johnson and Bryant are clearly among the best in the country when they’re healthy. LSU will field a strong lineup even without them, though, but imagine how strong it could be if and when everyone is fully healthy.

Overall, Clark is enthusiastic about LSU team prospects in 2023. Auburn, Mizzou and Kentucky closing the gap in the SEC. That means, simply put, scoring higher consistently will be the key to what happens in 2023 at LSU.

2023 LSU schedule

January

6 – at Utah
13 – at Kentucky
16 – OKLAHOMA
20 – MISSOURI
27 – at Arkansas
February
3 – GEORGIA
10 – at Auburn
17 – FLORIDA
24 – at Alabama
March
PODIUM CHALLENGE
(Baton Rouge, La.)
10 – WEST VIRGINIA
18 – at SEC Championships, Duluth, Ga.
March-April

30-1
NCAA REGIONALS
(Campus Site TBD)
14-15
NCAA CHAMPIONSHIPS
(Fort Worth, Texas)

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