LSU gymnastics team set to face Alabama

With all due respect to the Florida gymnastics team, whom LSU edged last week, the real litmus test for the unbeaten and fifth-ranked Tigers will come Friday night.

That’s when LSU will see how it measures up away from home for the first time this season against the sixth-ranked and two-time defending NCAA champion Alabama Crimson Tide at 7:30 p.m. in Coleman Coliseum.

The first of four consecutive road meets is a big one for LSU (2-0, 1-0 Southeastern Conference) with the Tigers coming off an impressive win over No. 3 Florida, 196.875-196.575.

“Yeah, it’s a big test for us because we’re on the road against a very good team,” LSU coach D-D Breaux said. “We’ve got four meets in a row away from home, so this is a good opportunity to establish ourselves.

“We want to keep it together and compete with the same intensity we have so far this year because we want to define ourselves as a strong, mentally-consistent team.”

LSU has been that so far this season going into the huge matchup with Alabama (1-0, 1-0). A live audio broadcast will be available free at www.lsusports.net/live.

The Tigers will be trying to win in Tuscaloosa, Ala. for only the third time in program history after taking victories in 1976 and 2009 — which is the last time the Crimson Tide lost at home.

Breaux’s team is 2-0 for the first time since 2009 after posting the highest season-opening score in school history (196.075) against North Carolina State on Jan. 4 and piling up the highest score in the SEC last Friday in beating Florida.

“The true, explainable reason for the record is a greater amount of intensity in our preparation,” Breaux said, “and higher expectations for ourselves.”

She said the Tigers had to win the battle of perception, so they changed the way they prepared — particularly in how the athletes mentally approached the beginning of the season.

“I feel like now, more than ever, we have a coaching staff that has a very consistent message,” Breaux noted. “From the managers all the way to the coaches, we all have the same message about the level of intensity and being all we can be. So it’s been exciting.

“We were eighth in the preseason coaches poll, but we thought we were better than that,” added Breaux, whose team got off to a slow start last year. “This year, the kids went in and performed well from the start. Now, we’re trying to build on that and get better each week.”

The Tigers’ strong start has been fueled by some strong performances on floor exercise and vault — two long-time strengths of the program — and balance beam.

LSU has already had the SEC Gymnast of the Week twice as sophomore all-arounders Rheagan Courville and Lloimincia Hall have taken the honors with scores of 39.500 and 39.450, respectively.

Hall, whose score was a career-high in the all-around, came through in a big way in the win against Florida.

The Tigers needed Hall, who anchored the lineup and had the final performance of the meet, to score at least 9.675 to wrap up the team title. She went out and delivered a 9.95 to win the meet by three-tenths of a point.

Hall ranks second in floor exercise and 10th in the all-around, while Courville, a Baton Rouge native, ranks third in the nation in the all-around and floor exercise.

Junior Sarie Morrison, who was named the SEC Specialist of the Week in the season-opening win over North Carolina State, ranks eighth nationally on vault and 14th on bars after scoring 9.90 on each in last week’s victory.

Other key early contributors have been juniors Kaleigh Dickson and Maliah Mathis on vault and floor; sophomore Jessie Jordan on bars, beam and floor; and freshman Jessica Savona on vault, beam and floor.

“I think their willingness to change and comply to what we were asking them to do has been the difference,” Breaux said in comparing the 2012 season to this year. “That includes we compete and how we practice.”

She can only hope that early success continues Friday when the Crimson Tide will be competing at home for the first time since winning its second straight national title last spring.

Alabama returns a talented team that is led by junior Sarah DeMeo, the early national leader on the bars. The Tide has eight returning athletes who earned All-America honors last season and has 20 of its 24 routines back from last year’s championship team.

“We have to stay focused,” Breaux said. “We have to go out and have fun and believe we’re every bit as good as they are. We just have to prove it.”