By the time he graduates, Erik Van Leer might be the best individual ever to come through the Evanston Township High School boys gymnastics program.
But the sophomore standout isn’t talented enough to be in two places at the same time.
After winning every single event at last week’s Central Suburban League conference gymnastics championship meet, Van Leer will be watching from the sidelines on Thursday when the Wildkits try to advance as a team out of the Lake Park Sectional tournament to the Illinois High School Association state finals.
Why won’t Van Leer suit up? Because of a conflict posed by the calendar, of all things.
The two-time CSL all-around champion has already qualified for the USA Men’s Developmental Program National Championships in Oklahoma City on the second weekend in May – the same dates as the IHSA state finals hosted by Hoffman Estates.
Van Leer and veteran ETHS head coach Frank Erwin made the joint decision to allow the ETHS star to make the trip to the Nationals. It’s the realization of a goal for Van Leer even though he was hoping to improve on last year’s 10th-place finish in floor exercise at the IHSA finals.
Ask him which goal he’d rather achieve – becoming a finalist at the Nationals in any event or winning a state high school championship – and Van Leer can’t find an easy answer.
On the other hand, he’s also in the enviable position to achieve BOTH goals before his gym career is over.
“It’s been a goal of mine to make it to Nationals ever since last year,” Van Leer said. “I knew before our season started that they were both on the same day. But at that point it wasn’t a given I’d make it to Nationals. Originally, I didn’t think I’d made the cutoff, but a couple of guys pulled out and I ended up sneaking in.
“It was a tough choice for me. Qualifying for Nationals is a goal I wanted to follow through on, though. I’ll miss the opportunity to be at state – but I have been there and done that. We’ll see how the schedule works out next year.”
The conflict also created a moral dilemma for Coach Erwin, who has guided the program back to the brink of belonging with the state’s elite in the sport for the first time since the 1980s. The temptation to let Van Leer compete at the high school sectional – and possibly earn either a team title or at least an at-large state berth for the entire squad – and then pull Van Leer out of the state finals was certainly strong.
But Erwin – and Van Leer – opted to take the high road.
“I am 100% supportive of Erik, whatever he chose to do,” said Erwin. “The sport of gymnastics comes first, though. There’s nothing I want more than to win a sectional and qualify a team for state. But if Erik competes at the sectional, he could take [state qualifying] slots away from other kids – even one of his own teammates. And what if Erik gives up on his goal to compete at Nationals – and the team doesn’t qualify for state? Then it’s on the rest of us, that we kept him from going to Nationals. He needs to have that experience at Nationals and he’s worked hard for it. He’s one of the hardest-working kids I’ve ever coached.
“It’s a difficult decision,” the coach said. “But this is the right thing to do.”
Dominating the meet
Van Leer dominated the competition at last Friday’s conference meet at Glenbrook South. He repeated the all-around championship he won as a freshman, raising his score to an impressive (and school record) 53.20 points with victories on floor exercise (9.50), pommel horse (8.00), still rings (9.20), vault (9.50), parallel bars (9.10) and horizontal bar (7.90).
Evanston claimed the outright team title after sharing the crown a year ago when dual meet results were added to the mix. This year, the Wildkits were unbeaten in dual meet competition and they totaled 143.00 points at GBS to easily outscore Glenbrook South (131.20), Maine East (127.80), Glenbrook North (123.20), Niles West (120.60), Highland Park (101.60), Niles North (93.50) and Deerfield (76.40).
Freshman Jacob Potter placed fifth all-around for Evanston with a score of 44.00, including a third-place effort on pommel horse (7.30). Xavier Probst, the state runner-up last year on floor exercise, tied for second on floor at 9.40 and Mo Frischer, another returning state qualifier, contributed a second on parallel bars at 8.70.
That group, along with the squad’s only senior, Jack McClintock, will try to challenge the second-ranked host team for top honors at Thursday’s sectional showdown at Lake Park. Sectional champions automatically advance to the team competition at state, along with three at-large teams based on scores.
Top three finishers in each event, plus 15 at-large individuals, will also keep their seasons alive.
Coach is optimistic
Erwin believes his young squad will rise to the occasion Thursday.
“Without Erik in the lineup, I think two or three or four teams will fight it out,” said the ETHS coach. “It wouldn’t be that close with Erik in there. He makes a huge difference for us. But we have the depth to pull it off. Jack McClintock is normally our No. 4 scorer, and he’s done a fantastic job for us this year. Now more of his scores will count.
“I plan to point out to the other kids that even if we took Erik’s scores out of the conference meet, we still would have been conference champs [tied with GBS]. Mo and Jacob are pretty solid all-arounders and Xavier has picked it up in a couple more events since last year.
“This is an opportunity for the others to step up and show what they can do. We’re still a good team.”