Who Is She?
LSU’s class of five new gymnasts features two former elites, though the star of the group may end up being Haleigh Bryant, among the most heralded L10 athletes in this year’s national incoming class. Bryant has been dominating the circuit for years, winning her first JO all-around title back in 2017 and continuing that success through to her victory at the 2020 Nastia Cup, the final competition before the End Times. Bryant notched three consecutive national vault titles in her L10 divisions in 2017, 2018, and 2019, and would have been the heavy favorite to win a fourth in 2020.
In the realm of elites, Olivia Dunne leads the way in LSU’s class, a four-year junior elite fan favorite who finished 9th all-around at junior nationals in 2017, 0.350 behind Sunisa Lee. Dunne went back to compete L10 in 2020 in preparation for college, finishing 11th at the 2020 Nastia Cup.
One theme in LSU’s freshman class this year is “children of amazing Georgia gymnasts,” which must give LSU a little smirk of naughty joy. Former elite Elena Arenas is the daughter of Kim Arnold, and Sierra Ballard is the daughter of Lori Strong, who now does commentary for LSU. Arenas had a big year in 2017 when she finished 9th all-around in the senior division at nationals, and like Dunne, returned to the world of L10 in the years following her elite experience. Most recently, Arenas placed 8th all-around in her division at 2019 JO Nationals. Ballard also competed at those 2019 JO Nationals, her second appearance at the event, taking 8th place on vault.
Chase Brock is a perennial JO Nationals qualifier herself who arrives at LSU hoping to regain the magic of her 2018 year, when she placed 6th on bars and 8th on vault, while sporting a Yurchenko 1.5.
What’s She Going to Do?
LSU’s 2021 squad will feel the loss of the seven essential routines delivered by last year’s seniors, the all-around from Kennedi Edney and VT, UB, FX from Ruby Harrold. Still, the star power from a couple athletes in this year’s freshman class—and the fact that two people are being replaced by five people—mean that LSU will not fear the absence of Edney and Harrold, or lower its expectations for 2021.
No single member of this new class will need to contribute the all-around, though Bryant looks a fairly likely candidate. Most importantly, her exquisite (nearly laid out) handspring pike 1/2 on vault, with a 10.0 start, should immediately earn a place alongside Kiya Johnson at the back of that lineup. Bryant also boasts a double front on floor that, remarkably, doesn’t look as if she’s trying to tear her own knees off in a psychotic fit, so expect an impressive routine to be built around that.
Bryant should become a solid option on bars as well (her JO sets just need a little now-it’s-college-scoring handstand refining), and she brings the talent and amplitude to deliver a competitive beam set, as needed. I say “as needed” because beam is currently the most intact lineup for LSU—having lost just the one routine from 2020—and there’s also Olivia Dunne in this class. Dunne is truly lovely on the event, the best beam worker in this incoming class, and if everything goes as it should, she can become the heir to the anchor position in LSU’s lineup.
It’s not just beam, though, and I expect to see Dunne on three events. She has quite a bit of potential in her bars routine, one that was pared down effectively for L10 composition this past season, and while we may not see the elite difficulty come back on floor, Dunne has the form, leaps, and compelling movement quality to deliver strong scores and TikTok worthy routines there (this is me being like, “I know she’s a TikTokky. I’m up with the trends”). As for vault, it has never been the main thing for her—and I’d say the team probably doesn’t need her full at this point—but it’s there.
On the issue of vault, Elena Arenas did have a pretty strong DTY in her elite days, though in recent years she has dropped down to a full that may or may not be needed. As last season progressed, LSU had to put up some Yfulls it would have rather not have counted, and Arenas would be an upgrade over those vaults, as would most of this class. But really, I’m most interested in Arenas’s competition potential on bars and floor. Especially in her JO bars work, she demonstrated the handstand ability upon which great college bars can be born, and on floor, a strong front 2/1 gives her a possible E pass advantage over others—on what should once again be a deep event for LSU with plenty of viable options.
Among the freshman vaulting Yfulls, Sierra Ballard has the best one, so I could see her going up as a solid 1st or 2nd. As primarily a VT/FX gymnast, Ballard also brings a double Arabian on floor, so watch out for that. The scores haven’t typically been there for her on bars and beam, but especially on beam, she’s better than her results. In some ways, Ballard looks like a complementary version of Bridget Dean, someone who could get into several lineups as time goes on, depending on how the needs of the team progress, but doesn’t necessary feel like a lock for anything.
Now, we really need to talk about Chase Brock because I’m fascinated. If you looked at Brock’s results for 2019 and 2020, you’d say, “well, she’s never going to compete.” But if we take a journey all the way back to 2018 (the videos I’ve linked to below), Brock shows some remarkable gymnastics, including a Yurchenko 1.5 and one of the most amazing full-outs you’ll see on floor. If you saw only those routines, you’d imagine she’ll be a team star on vault and floor and a probable contributor on bars. LSU is hoping for a diamond-in-the-rough situation where Brock performs at her 2018 level, because that’s someone who will make lineups for big scores. Most significantly, the team wants that Y1.5 out of her because LSU is dropping two 10.0 starts from last season and needs Brock to become the second new 10.0 start out of this class to help that lineup remain competitive.
Shut Up and Show Me It