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Considering that Evanston’s heyday in boys gymnastics dates back to the 1960s and early 1970s, it’s no surprise that any freshman back then made an impact for the Wildkits on the sectional and state levels.

Part of the reason is that club gymnastics didn’t exist in those days and most rookies didn’t have much experience or coaching prior to entering the high school ranks.

But Thursday night at the Lyons Township Sectional meet, Erik Van Leer changed that dynamic at ETHS.

The first-year standout captured the individual championship on floor exercise with a score of 9.15 and senior teammate Aryeh Lesch took top honors on vault at 9.25 as both competitors punched automatic tickets to next week’s Illinois High School Association state finals.

Top five finishers in each event will automatically move on to the two-day state meet set for Friday and Saturday at Hoffman Estates High School. Both Van Leer and Lesch will find out on Monday if they will advance as at-large qualifiers in any other events.

Van Leer placed second to his teammate on vault, at 8.9 after ruling floor exercise with a surprisingly low score. But it was good enough to make history for a program that head coach Frank Erwin has made relevant again in the postseason. Lesch qualified for state for the second year in a row after earning fifth on vault and seventh on floor with his breakthrough season as a junior.

“The judging [on floor exercise] was very tight and very difficult,” Erwin explained. “Erik hit a clean set, but Aryeh had his lowest score [8.7 for sixth place] of the year and so did Xavier [Probst]. They didn’t hit their best sets, but both of them would have scored much higher during the regular season. I don’t think Aryeh’s been below 9.3 all season until the sectional.

“It’s unusual to have a 1-2 finish like we had on vault, and that’s probably been done before here. But I can pretty confidently say that no freshman has done what Erik did. For a freshman to win a sectional? That’s very unusual.”

Erwin, who has coached the sport for 40 years, admitted that he was reluctant to accept a gymnast whose previous experience came from a club he himself didn’t coach. It’s not always a bad thing for an athlete to hear another coach’s voice but it doesn’t always turn out well for both parties, either.

So far, so good for the Van Leer-Erwin experience.

 “I’m kinda picky as a coach, and Erik is the first gymnast I’ve had [including his successful stint at Naperville Central] who was coached somewhere else,” noted the ETHS head coach. “Of course, there were no clubs so there were no club kids when I first started coaching.

“When Erik first came in I had a little reluctance to suggest changes to him too quickly. But I’m very fortunate because Erik Is so hard-working, self-motivated and very coachable. And some club coaches don’t want you messing with their kids, but I can discuss what he’s doing with his club coaches and they’re very open with me. It wasn’t a given that he’d come out for the high school team, but I’m very glad he did, and I think he’s very glad he did, too.”

The 1-2 punch of Van Leer and Lesch led the Wildkits to a third place team finish with 135.50 points at the sectional. Evanston trailed only top-ranked Lyons (149.30) and Naperville North (139.50) in the eight-team field.

Van Leer earned eighth in the all-around competition, with a score of 47.00, just beating out Lesch at 46.40. A mishap on vault pushed another ETHS entrant, sophomore Mo Frischer, back down to 16th place all-around at 33.15.

Van Leer’s efforts included an eighth on pommel horse at 7.1; an eighth on still rings at 8.0; a 14th on parallel bars at 7.7; and a 15th on horizontal bar at 6.15.

Lesch turned in another consistently solid performance, ranking sixth on horizontal bar at 7.45; eighth on parallel bars at 7.95; and 11th on pommel horse at 6.45.

Erwin expects both competitors to move on in other events when the Illinois High School Association figures in the results of every sectional.

“Aryeh was really disappointed with his score on floor, but when vault came around he was really pleased with the way he nailed it,” said the Evanston coach. “He stuck it, and that’s such a good feeling when you connect like that. I’ll be surprised if he doesn’t qualify on floor and I think he has a good shot on both p-bars and high bar. I think Erik has a shot on horse, too. It would be the icing on the cake for us if that happens. At State, we’ll see what we can do to make it to finals. We’ll hit the best we can, and when the smoke clears, we hope we’ll make it.”

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