BATON ROUGE, La. — The LSU gymnastics team won’t just be competing in the SEC Championships this week. It’s also competing against the memories of coming up short in the past.
Two seasons ago, the LSU gymnastics team went undefeated in conference competition. Because of their regional qualifying score of 197.630, the Tigers qualified as the No. 2 seed for the SEC title meet. And that’s where LSU stayed, finishing second to Alabama with a meet score of 197.450.
Last season, the LSU gymnastics finished with one loss in conference competition but, thanks to tie-breakers, had the best record in the conference anyway. Thanks to a regional qualifying score of 197.555, the Tigers qualified as the No. 2 seed for the SEC Championships. And they couldn’t stay there. LSU finished third with a meet score of 197.500.
This year, the Tigers are in a similar, albeit better, place. LSU had the best regular-season record in the SEC, going undefeated. Only this time, the Tigers also have the best regional qualifying score in the SEC. Their score of 197.785 qualifies them as the No. 1 seed in this Saturday’s SEC championships.
LSU comes in as the favorite in more ways than one. The Tigers have the best scores, the most veteran squad, and they’ve already beaten everybody.
Things are different this time around. But they’re also similar. It’s all about the present, but the present is all about the past.
“The only reason it feels different to me is the team that we have and the season that we’ve had up to this moment,” senior Ashleigh Gnat said Monday. “I think we have a lot of confidence going in, but I don’t think that’s something that we’re going to rest on. We want to stay process-oriented based on every routine that we’re doing and get the outcome that we want.”
The unquestioned anchor of the team, Gnat ranks as the nation’s best vaulter, third-best floor worker and 11th-best balance beam worker coming into the tournament. This year’s team is defined by how closely knit it is. Gnat said.
Not that last year’s team wasn’t. It was. Perhaps just as much. But experience defines you. And the collective success LSU has seen this year has had a way of defining this club.
That’s where the past two years come back. For competitors like Gnat and fellow senior Shae Zamardi who remember the heartbreak, those experiences defined the framework of their being just as much this year’s successes. Which is why it’s hard for Zamardi to think of anything else but bringing home LSU gymnastics its first postseason SEC title since 1981.
“It’s still [our] No. 1 [goal],” Zamardi said. “That’s a wonderful thing about this team. I think right now it’s No. 1 in everyone’s head. That’s all that we want right now. That’s our main focus.”
But this year’s focus is a little different. Obviously, the LSU gymnastics team wants to win the SEC championship. But in a way, it already has.
Unlike the previous two seasons, when having the best regular-season record in the SEC was a virtually meaningless feat, the SEC gave out a regular-season championship trophy this season, and LSU won it. To rephrase, LSU dominated en route to snatching it away from anyone else who had a chance.
Against Florida, in a de facto SEC championship meet between the best teams in the conference, LSU thrashed the Gators. It had its best score of the season 198.150, compared to Florida’s 196.60, its worst score of the year.
Because of that turn of events, this championship feels a little different to LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux. Not in a bad way, just in a “Oh, that’s nice” kind of way.
“It does feel a little bit different,” Breaux said. “The regular season built to that crescendo. So yeah, it does feel a little bit different and I’m glad we had a meet between [Florida and the SEC championships] because it gave us time to bring the kids down with another competition and celebrate the seniors. We didn’t have to do all that in one night. The fact that we had that span of time, I think was good for us.”
If one week of time was good to clear the gymnasts’ heads, imagine what a year or two of stewing on losses has done. Breaux and Gnat are adamant that last year was last year and two years ago was two years ago. This is a new team. The last two years are inconsequential.
But Zamardi gave a little hint into how she feels deep beyond the almost Alabama football-esque process Breaux preaches. Here’s a quick hint: It’s motivated. She feels motivated.
“Obviously, we were so close so it was a little difficult, but it just made us more hungry,” Zamardi said. “And I love that about this sport. You’re always that close. I think this year it just made us hungrier and we’re just ready to get out there.”