LSU gymnastics team tries to chase down elusive championship

Upon joining the LSU gymnastics team in 2011, Rheagan Courville wasn’t interested in putting any limitations on herself or her new teammates.

Even though the Tigers had been to the Super Six finals just twice since that format was adopted for the NCAA championships in 1993, with only fifth- and sixth-place finishes to show for it, a wide-eyed Courville saw a whole lot more.

Just getting to the Super Six wasn’t enough for Courville, LSU’s top all-arounder for the past three seasons. From the time she made her way across campus from University High, Courville envisioned helping the program to its first national championship.

“Absolutely, I’ve thought about it since the day I got here,” she said Monday.

After finishing fifth a year ago, the current Tigers, whose hallmark this season has been consistency, believe they have an opportunity to do what Courville set her sights on in the NCAA championships starting Friday in Birmingham, Ala.

Top-ranked LSU, which was seeded third for the NCAA regionals two weeks ago, will make its pitch for the program’s fourth Super Six appearance in the first of two national semifinal sessions at 1 p.m. Friday.

The Tigers will go against No. 2 seed Oklahoma, No. 6 Georgia, No. 7 Michigan, No. 10 Stanford and No. 11 Illinois.

The second semifinal at 6 p.m. features top-seeded Florida, No. 4 Alabama, No. 5 Utah, No. 8 UCLA, No. 9 Nebraska and No. 15 Penn State.

The top three teams from each semifinal will vie for the team title in the Super Six at 6 p.m. Saturday.

Courville became just the sixth LSU athlete to win an NCAA individual title when she shared the vault crown last season, but she believes the ultimate goal is there for the taking this time around.

The difference has been consistent performances across the board, which has the Tigers — who’ve scored at least a 197 in a school-record 11 competitions in a row — ranked in the nation’s top five in all four events. They’re No. 1 in vault.

“It’s a huge goal, but it’s even more amazing that it’s so realistic,” Courville said. “We’ve really stuck to our process and stuck to what we wanted to do. This (winning the title) is part of what we want to do.”

Courville, who ranks second in the nation in the all-around and is seventh and ninth, respectively, on vault and beam, is just one of the keys to LSU’s title hopes.

Jessie Jordan ranks ninth in the all-around and is sixth on beam, while Sarie Morrison is fourth on bars. Lloimincia Hall is LSU’s other top-10 gymnast with a No. 3 ranking on floor exercise, where she has posted three 10s this season.

Kaleigh Dickson, an all-arounder, may be limited to vault because of a foot injury she suffered when LSU blew away the old school record with a 198.325 score in winning its regional April 5.

The Tigers recorded the highest score of the 12 teams that qualified for the semifinals in the six regionals held across the country.

So it’s easy to see why this may be LSU’s best shot to produce its highest national finish ever, a fourth-place effort in 1988 when the scoring and format was much different, in coach D-D Breaux’s 37 seasons.

“I’ve been a part of such great teams and I feel like I watched it progress,” said Courville, the 2013 SEC Gymnast of the Year. “I’ve seen the confidence in everybody, and I know everybody feels this is it. They’re ready, and this is really the peak of their performance and of our careers.”

Breaux said: “I think it’s there for the taking. The thing we have to do is eliminate the clutter. We can’t go in there and think about anything other than being in the moment right now. It’s got to be automatic.”

Breaux said that was the key when the Tigers, who were stung by a couple of miscues and stumbled to a third-place finish at the Southeastern Conference championships, rebounded in the regional.

“We can’t think anymore,” she said. “It has to be automatic. They did that in the regional and they got caught up in it, and they understand the process better now.”

As a result, Courville feels her three-year goal is within reach even though it’ll be a huge challenge if they reach the Super Six.

“This whole year has been great. ... It’s exciting to be around such a successful team and such an enthusiastic team,” Courville said. “So we’re thankful we got to this point, and we’re ready to finish strong. We don’t want to accept anything less than what we think we deserve from the performances we’ve had all season.”