Rabalais: Putting a bow on LSU’s sports year

How should we remember LSU’s 2013-14 athletic year?

There were great highs and bitter lows, but looking back there is a definite “Meh” factor to the whole year.

There are at least two sides to every story, and that was true for just about every achievement or disappointment LSU athletics and athletes had this past year.

Here’s a positive: LSU was the only school in the Southeastern Conference to win 10 games in football, 20 games in men’s basketball and 40 games in baseball. In fact, only four other FBS schools nationwide accomplished that (Florida State, Louisville, Oklahoma State and Oregon). Nice achievement.

Flip to the other side of the coin: LSU football finished third in the SEC West, basketball just eked into the NIT (though it did post a win) and baseball won the SEC tournament before flaming out as a national seed in its own regional.

That baseball tournament title was the only conference championship of any sort that LSU athletic teams won this year. No NCAA championships, either, though third-place NCAA showings in gymnastics and men’s golf definitely deserve applause.

LSU finished 24th in the Learfield Cup, a season-long ranking based on how a school performs as an athletic program overall.

Twenty-fourth is not bad, but LSU has and should aspire to do better. LSU athletic teams have spoiled their fans with numerous championships in recent years. The purple-and-gold faithful are used to seeing their teams crowned as champions, not simply being content to be kingmakers (or queenmakers).

As usual, it wasn’t boring in Tigertown. Here’s a snapshot of the people and performances that we will remember from LSU in 2013-14:

BEST ATHLETE: You can debate this one until last call at your favorite watering hole, but it’s hard to pick anyone but Aaron Nola. The ace of LSU’s pitching staff has already earned a national pitcher of the year honor after going 11-1 with a 1.47 ERA in 2014. He’s one of the three best Tiger pitchers I’ve ever seen at LSU along with Ben McDonald and Lloyd Peever, and he gets a nod over Peever for having not been a one-season wonder.

I don’t know if I’ve ever covered anyone more unflappable. The guy is simply sans flap. I’d love to check Nola’s heart rate after working out of a jam with one of his 12-to-6 breaking balls.

BEST TEAM: D-D Breaux is the grand dame of LSU coaches. She has been leading the gymnastics program since Mary Lou Retton was in grade school, her 37 years coaching the longest tenure in school history.

Her 2014 team was, by Breaux’s estimation, her best ever. The Tigers turned in a program-best third-place finish in the NCAA championships after being ranked No. 1 much of the season, with Rheagan Courville wrapping up her stellar LSU career with her second straight NCAA vault title. Breaux was named national coach of the year and shows no signs of slowing down.

DRAMA KING: LSU has had some lightning-rod athletes come through its doors, but maybe none more polarizing than Jeremy Hill.

The former Redemptorist running back came to LSU under a cloud of legal issues and compounded his problems after punching a man from behind outside a Tigerland bar in a now-infamous cell phone video.

Hill was controversially reinstated to the team in August after a judge gave him only minor consequences for violating his prior probation.

Once he was back, there was no stopping him, as he rushed for 1,401 yards (the second-most in a season in LSU history) and 16 touchdowns. Hill’s finale was a brazen display of raw power as he plowed through a solid Iowa defense for 216 yards and two scores in the mud of the Outback Bowl in Tampa, Florida.

BIGGEST VOID TO FILL FOR 2014: Hill, Jarvis Landry (1,193 yards) and Odell Beckham Jr. (1,152) made LSU the first team in SEC history to have a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers in the same season, marking an impressively diverse debut for offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. No one has his work more cut out for him next year than Cam Cam, though there are worse tasks than to draw up running plays for incoming freshman running back Leonard Fournette.

MOST MEMORABLE GAME: The night of Jan. 28, the Pete Maravich Assembly Center became the Ice Dome as an ice storm closed roads around Baton Rouge and made even walking to the game treacherous. The Tigers then put the freeze on eventual NCAA runner-up Kentucky, leading wire-to-wire for an 87-82 win behind 29 points from Johnny O’Bryant III. It was LSU’s first win over a ranked UK team since 2000.

SPORT AS ART: Back to gymnastics, where Lloimincia Hall had three perfect 10s on floor exercise this season, including one to cap LSU’s win over archrival Alabama on Jan. 31. You couldn’t watch “Mincy” on floor without wanting to get up on your feet and dance.

BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT: LSU was six outs away from hosting a super regional, up 4-0 on Houston after seven innings. But the Cougars clawed through the Tigers bullpen to tie the score at 4 before winning 5-4 in 11 innings. LSU was mentally gutted by that loss, coming back the following night to lose to Houston 12-2.

CLUTCH PERFORMANCE: Most people not related to Anthony Jennings expect Brandon Harris to beat him out for the starting quarterback job, but Jennings is the man LSU turned to Nov. 29 when Zach Mettenberger went down with a knee injury against Arkansas.

His team down 27-24 and LSU starting from its 1-yard line, Jennings drove the Tigers 99 yards, capped by the game-winning 49-yard touchdown pass to Travin Dural with 1:15 left.

THE UP-AND-COMER: If her exotic-sounding name hasn’t stuck in your head yet, remember Sahvanna Jaquish going into the 2015 softball season. The freshman catcher from Highland, California, earned second-team All-America honors as she led the Tigers in hitting (.341), home runs (17), RBIs (55) and slugging percentage (.699), the last number the second-highest in program history.

NUMBERS GAME: LSU’s football recruiting class was ranked No. 2 across the board but behind archrival Alabama. … The women’s track and field team finished sixth at the NCAA outdoor meet, its ninth straight top-10 finish. The men were fourth in the outdoor meet, their 13th top-five finish in the past 15 years. … The LSU men’s golf team’s tie for third in the NCAA championships was its best finish since 1967, losing in the match play semifinals to, yes, Alabama. … And, finally, 100,000. That’s the capacity, give or take a few, of Tiger Stadium after the south end zone expansion is completed. Construction cranes literally dominated the skyline over the campus through 2013-14.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter: @RabalaisAdv.