LSU gymnastics finally heads home

After driving by the Pete Maravich Assembly Center thousands of times in the past 36 years, LSU gymnastics coach D-D Breaux hardly needs a road map to get to her team’s home meets.

But after being on the road for the past four weeks, Breaux may need something else — a new set of keys to the building — when the seventh-ranked Tigers return home to host No. 20 Arkansas at 7 p.m. Friday.

“It’s been so long,” Breaux said with a laugh Thursday. “I think I need a refresher course on how to open the locker room over there. We’ve been gone so long, I’m afraid they’ve changed the locks.”

The good thing is that Breaux was able to laugh about an arduous road swing that began at Alabama, the two-time defending NCAA champion, and included a visit to the highly competitive Metroplex Challenge in Fort Worth, Texas, as well as Southeastern Conference matchups with Kentucky and Missouri.

Despite losing at Alabama and then to No. 2 Oklahoma in Fort Worth, the Tigers came out of the four-week stretch with a 5-2 mark after beating three teams in Texas and clipping the Wildcats and Missouri.

Breaux noted the tough road LSU (7-2, 3-1) had to travel since its last home meet against Florida on Jan. 11 was by design, but the matchup with Arkansas (1-4, 0-4) will be a nice respite for the weary Tigers.

“It happened by choice,” said Breaux, who pointed out that LSU and Georgia opted out of that date to get into the Metroplex Challenge. “It’s so important to be part of that meet in Texas. It’s a huge bonus for anybody to compete in that meet in front of all those Texas kids.

“It was hard on our kids because we don’t travel easy. It’s definitely not easy, but they dug deep and did a super job of adjusting to everything and making the best of every situation presented them.”

The road trip was capped by a season-high score of 197.275 in an easy victory against Missouri. It was the highest road score for LSU since 2005, when it posted a 197.850 at Oklahoma.

But there is a lot more to be done.

“I think we’ve built some consistency, but I’d like to see us become a little more solid throughout the entire lineup,” Breaux said. “We’re hitting five routines on bars and beams, but I would like to see us hit six. Hopefully that will come with changes we’re making in our training regimen.

“I like the consistent message that we’re giving our kids, and I like how they’re responding to Jay’s coaching style,” she said of first-year associate head coach Jay Clark. “I think that’s really complemented our total effort and has had a positive effect on our team.”

Breaux said the leadership of upperclassmen Kaleigh Dickson, Sarie Morrison and Ericka Garcia, one of only two seniors on the squad, has been key through the first half of the season. She said Dickson, a second-team All-American in the all-around as a freshman in 2011, has worked her way back into all four events after not competing in it a year ago.

“Being a solid all-arounder for us has made a tremendous difference in the quality of our team,” Beaux said. “She’s been a bit of a surprise because she just couldn’t make it happen last year. Her attention to detail is beyond what it was last year — and that’s made a huge difference.”

Dickson ranks 21st in the nation in the all-around, while sophomore Rheagan Courville is tied for 13th. Morrison is seventh in the uneven bars and tied for ninth in the vault.

Another big contributor has been sophomore Lloimincia Hall, who had a 10.0 on the floor exercise at Missouri. It was the first 10 for LSU since 2009 and its first on the floor since 2008.

All 13 gymnasts who have competed this season have scored at least one 9.80, and 11 of the 13 have scored a 9.85 or higher. As a result, the Tigers rank No. 1 nationally on floor and No. 2 on vault.

“They have shown us that they are maturing, and they’re accepting the responsibility to improve their performance,” Breaux said. “We’re just so excited to be at home.”