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The experience of competing at the Illinois High School Association state gymnastics finals laid a foundation for Aryeh Lesch to build on for next year.
At the same time, the Evanston junior also showed the gymnasts who will wear the Wildkit uniform in future years that it IS possible for an ETHS competitor to rise to the top after decades of frustration in the sport for the boys program.
Lesch became the first Evanston male gymnast to earn a State medal since 1988 on Saturday at Hoffman Estates High School, placing fifth in the vault and seventh on floor exercise to cap a remarkable season.
Lesch scored a career-best 9.15 on vault, tying Joe Kall of Prospect for fifth place, and finished seventh on floor at 9.25. He is the only athlete in ETHS history to score top 10 State finishes in both gymnastics and diving, and also owns sectional championships in both sports.
And he’s only a junior.
“This is not anything I would have expected when I came in as a freshman, that’s for sure,” Lesch said. “It’s really cool to see the progress I’ve been able to make. I didn’t really expect this.
“I knew it had been a long time since we’ve had any State finalists at Evanston. I definitely felt proud when I heard them announce Evanston [as the teams made their entrance during both Friday’s preliminaries and Saturday’s finals]. I was really happy I could represent the school at State. I think this showed that there’s a lot of hard work going on here.
“We had a great year as a team. The team finished third in the conference and we had two state qualifiers [Lesch in three events and Jacob Brodsky on pommel horse), and even though we lose three seniors, we’ll have some good incoming freshmen next year, so I think we’ll be able to keep this momentum going.”
“Aryeh had a great meet,” praised Evanston coach Frank Erwin. “But more important than the experience he got, he set the stage for the judges to know him next year. He will NOT be an unknown quantity from an unknown school going forward. People will know who he is.
“I’m very pleased with his performances. And it’s a big deal for the psyche of the team, the guys who were in the stands watching him. Now they know this is doable for someone from Evanston. It was really hard to get rid of our history, and this is the kind of thing that breaks that history.
“I think that if we were healthy, we would have qualified as a team this year. We were coming on strong going back to last year [when the coronavirus pandemic wiped out the season after one meet].”
Lesch’s trailblazing effort came as no surprise to the veteran coach, who competed for a State championship program while he prepped at Hinsdale Central and also guided Naperville Central to State level success as the head coach there. In his sixth season now at ETHS, he thinks the program’s best days are still to come, with Lesch leading the way.
“I was lucky to have the kids we had this year with their work ethic,” he said. “They believed they could do well and that made a big difference. But it was still hard to convince them that they could be state qualifiers.
“Aryeh is such an interesting kid. Yes, he’s talented, but that isn’t what makes you a champion, because all of the kids here in the top 10 are talented. He has a certain amount of drive, and I think he’s hungrier than the average competitor. He really wants it. He’s not the best athlete we have in every event, but he is one of our most consistent competitors and he just hits lots of good routines.”
Lesch ranked third on floor exercise coming out of Friday’s prelims, with a 9.40 score, but couldn’t improve on that effort Saturday. He also notched a score of 8.95 on vault, good enough to make the cut, but couldn’t advance on still rings with a score of 6.435.
Brodsky was also eliminated in the prelims on pommel horse, finishing at 7.10.
“I really didn’t expect to be in the top five on vault,” Lesch admitted. “And I was hoping for better on floor, too. Today I rushed a little on my first pass [on floor], so that wasn’t great. On vault, I did a tsuk pike [vault] at sectional, but it really wasn’t working until this week. I got the layout, but with a shaky landing at sectional. Today, I wanted to nail it – and I did! That was a career best for me, and I’m kinda proud of that. That made up for not hitting on floor.
“I realized this year that I was capable of placing in the top five at State, so that became my goal. I’d really like to do a full meet here next year [as an all-around qualifier] because that would be such a great accomplishment.”