Xavier Probst’s path to success could some day lead to his dream job of performing with Cirque du Soleil.

But what the Evanston sophomore pulled off Saturday was no circus trick.

In a stunning – and yet not surprising – conclusion to his first high school gymnastics season, Probst turned in the routine of his career and finished second on floor exercise at the Illinois High School Association boys state finals held at Hoffman Estates High School.

Probst joined his much decorated teammate, senior Aryeh Lesch, on the awards podium after Lesch also placed second on vault. It marked the first time a pair of Evanston gymnasts have earned state medals in the same season since the 1986-87 school year, when Rodney Pointer and Mark Sussman placed 1-2 on vault.

The Wildkits have rewritten the history book so many times in the past couple of seasons under head coach Frank Erwin, the ink is barely dry before changes must be made again.

The Kits followed up their first conference championship since 1988 this spring by advancing three individuals – Probst, Lesch and freshman Erik Van Leer – to the finals in one event, floor exercise. That’s an unprecedented effort for a program that has enjoyed a resurgence under Erwin.

Probst’s Saturday score of 9.5 came from the same gymnast who didn’t even finish in the top five at the sectional – advancing as an at-large qualifier on floor – and only qualified for the top 10 coming out of Friday’s preliminaries by tying three other competitors, including teammate Lesch, for that final spot with a score of 9.15.

But the Wildkit sophomore put it all together on the sport’s biggest stage. His combination of strength and grace produced a score that trailed only the eventual champion, John Pirone of Palatine, who recorded a 9.55.

“I told our other coaches this morning that Xavier can win this, so can Aryeh, or so can Erik. We have the best floor exercise team in the state!” Erwin exclaimed. “It’s all about who hits best. Yes, it’s a big surprise – but I knew he could do it. What he and Aryeh accomplished today is so great for our program.”

Probst transferred to ETHS from Chicago Waldorf School this year with a background that didn’t include gymnastics. His physical skills started to develop at an early age, however, when he enrolled in a circus program in first grade and two of his coaches at that point were also involved with the Actors Gymnasium located in Evanston.

He worked on juggling, tumbling and aerial skills and still trains there. In fact, he was due at a rehearsal Saturday for an upcoming performance after he got finished collecting that gymnastics medal.

“I came to Evanston and heard they had a gymnastics team, and it was something I’ve wanted to try for a very long time,” Probst said. “That was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. The focus is all on form in gymnastics and the circus is more loose, more free. But I think the judges [Saturday] took a liking to that part of my routine. I’ve been able to transfer the skills I already had.”

Probst was just happy he kept his season alive after what he described himself as being “so bad” at the sectional meet.

“Right now I’m insanely shocked! I literally had the best set of my life, and I got it at the state finals,” he pointed out. “I was so bad at sectional and I bumped my score up a whole point when I needed it. I’m in disbelief. “I just focused on being a little less stressed than yesterday, and on sticking my landings so the judges could see my skills. I stuck all of my landings today.”

While Probst’s performance seemed to come out of nowhere – at least the rest of the field would probably say that – Lesch has been a model of consistency for the Wildkits over the past four years. His score of 9.30 on vault exactly matched the score he turned in during Friday’s prelims, and led the competition for most of the day Saturday until Joe Kall of Prospect equaled that score and champion Ben Valak of Buffalo Grove surpassed them both, winning at 9.5.

Lesch also finished seventh on floor exercise at 9.25, the same state placing he earned in that event as a junior. The Dartmouth University-bound standout built his ETHS resume and is believed to be the only athlete in school history to score multiple top 10 State finishes in two sports, gymnastics and diving. He did that as a junior.

Lesch began his athletic career as a young gymnast, but Saturday’s effort marked his last competition. He will continue as a diver at Dartmouth.

“I wouldn’t say I’m sad about that. This was a great way for it to end,” said Lesch, smiling. “And I’m glad I got to do this along with three of my teammates this year.

“Winning the conference was a goal of mine the whole time I’ve been here and now there are two of us on the podium at state. That makes us relevant again as a program, now that we’re competing with the best in the state. “I was super happy with the way vault went. I was solid and consistent both days and today I just took a little step at the end (on his landing). Consistency is what really counts on vault.”

Lesch also punched a ticket to the prelims on parallel bars and high bar, but couldn’t advance in those events.

“When I came in here, I wanted to build a good program again, and I think we have,” said Erwin, who just concluded his seventh year as head coach. “We had the best floor team in the state this year and we qualified someone in every event. Now, I’m going to put a picture of our 1965 [state championship] team up on the wall at the gym and give them something else to shoot for.”

Van Leer settled for 10th on floor with his score of 9.1, but will be back along with Probst and another qualifier, sophomore Mo Frischer on parallel bars. Van Leer’s high bar routine didn’t get the results he needed to advance to state – this year – but the first-year performer is one of the best freshmen to enter the program in decades.

He didn’t let the big stage affect how he performed in the two-day test at Hoffman Estates, either, as a qualifier on floor, vault, pommel horse, parallel bars and still rings.

“I feel like I handled things pretty well here,” Van Leer said. “It’s not quite the same as club. Nerves can affect you in different events, and I could’ve saved a few 10ths here and there. But I’m glad to be part of this team. It’s a lot more supportive environment than club, where it’s just you and the coaches.”

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