Aryeh Lesch became the first male gymnast from Evanston in more than 30 years to win a sectional championship last week.

Now, the Wildkit junior is aiming even higher.

Lesch hopes to rise to the top in his specialty – floor exercise – and will also compete on vault and still rings at the Illinois High School Association State finals set for Friday and Saturday at Hoffman Estates High School.

No competitor from ETHS has brought home a State medal since Mark Sussman placed fourth on vault during the 1987-88 season. But Lesch’s score of 9.6 on floor exercise, which tied him for the individual title with Tegshmurun Jamiyankhuu of Niles West at the Hinsdale Sectional qualifying meet, stamps him as one of the medal favorites if he can match that score again next weekend.

Lesch also placed third on vault (8.95) and fifth on still rings (7.45) while leading the Wildkits to a notable third place finish in the sectional team standings. His journey hasn’t been easy, however, even though he narrowly missed qualifying for State as a freshman back in 2019.

First, the layoff due to the coronavirus pandemic meant that like many athletes, Lesch had to train his body all over again. Muscle memory doesn’t apply as much in gymnastics as in some other sports and most competitors were satisfied just to get their routines in different events back to where they ended their seasons two years ago.

Lesch had placed seventh in the State in diving as a sophomore and his physical activity competing in that sport again this winter – even though there were no State finals held – at least gave him an edge over classmates who spent most of their time just hunched over their computer screens.

Once the Illinois High School Association approved a shortened season, however, Lesch strained muscles in his back and only competed in a couple of regular season meets. He couldn’t compete as an all-arounder until the Central Suburban League meet to keep the stress from affecting his back.

Veteran Wildkit coach Frank Erwin knew from the moment Lesch walked into the practice gym as a freshman that Lesch was a performer to watch.

“I thought Aryeh was good enough and talented to make it to State when he was a freshman, but he didn’t quite make it,” Coach Erwin said. “Still, he had a pretty good routine [on floor] at the end of his freshman year.

“When he hurt his back right away it was very concerning because I knew he could be a State qualifier. When he did come back, there was only a little he could do, and I was very cautious with him. I was a little surprised he won at the sectional, because the guy from Niles West beat him at the conference. That’s really quite an achievement for Aryeh. He was visibly pleased, and so was I, when he won.”

“I definitely didn’t expect it,” said Lesch regarding his individual win. “I knew I was capable of qualifying, but it was a big surprise to win it. That was my best score by 3-10ths [of a point] and I didn’t expect it to be that high.

“It was nerve-wracking not to have a full season [the IHSA cut four weeks of the sport from the calendar to adjust to COVID], and then to miss two weeks because of my back. I just worked on the other events, and did my physical therapy, and then I was able to focus on floor and vault at the end.

“Normally over the summer I would have practiced gymnastics, but this year I was a little more focused on diving. I did get over to Wilmette Gymnastics three or four days to practice, but that was it. I felt a little rusty at first. The layoff didn’t affect my floor routine, but I wasn’t able to upgrade my routines in the other events like I wanted to.”

“It was a real challenge for all the kids, missing all that time, but this was a great group to work with,” said Coach Erwin, who guided the Kits to third at the sectional (season-high 127.30 points) and third at the Central Suburban League championship meet. “There’s a really slow learning curve in gymnastics, and this [pandemic] didn’t help. Kids at some of the other schools were able to work out with their clubs. We did have some contact days [allowed by the IHSA during the off-season] and that helped.

“We had injuries to our two best all-arounders and I blame the pandemic for that. Most of them were just physically out of shape. We’re just thankful we could get in the gym this year. We lost Ethan Morady [severely sprained ankle] for the year and, because they aren’t allowing as many [at-large] qualifiers this year, another senior, Jacob Brodsky, won’t get a chance at State.”

Brodsky placed eighth at the sectional on pommel horse, and in most years his score of 7.6 would have made the at-large cut. Not this year, when the State organization doesn’t want a big crowd of competitors in the same space at the same time.

Lesch advanced due to top five finishes in each event, automatically nailing down those spots. Now he’s poised for a big finish.

“Winning the sectional was definitely a confidence booster for me. Floor ex has always been my best event and I really enjoy the flipping aspect of it,” he said.

“I don’t know what to expect at State. My goal is just to do clean routines, the way I’m capable of doing them. I’ll just focus on doing my best.”