Naperville schools carry on despite IHSA discontinuing boys gymnastics after 71 years

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The Illinois High School Association (IHSA) has removed boys gymnastics from the spring sports season, making it the first sport to be discontinued by the IHSA since girls field hockey in 1982. 

“Boys gymnastics has kind of always been on the chopping block, and we’ve always heard that ‘we got to be worried,’” said Chris Stanicek, Naperville North’s Boys Gymnastics Coach since 2006. “Even though you’re kind of ready for the moment; when it happens, it still kind of hits you. It’s sad for me because I was a high school gymnast in Illinois, and it’s been around for 70-plus years.”

Low participation numbers across IHSA boys gymnastics

The discontinuation mostly stems from low participation numbers across the sport. IHSA Policy 14 states that the board will consider the deletion of an existing state series when less than ten percent of the member schools compete in the series.

In 2023, there were 40 boys gymnastics teams, many of them co-ops made from multiple schools, while the IHSA has over 800 total member schools. The modern era of boys gymnastics saw as many as 79 schools competing back in the 1970s.

Despite losing the IHSA sport status, boys gymnastics will continue to roll on across the state, including the two longest-running programs in the area, Naperville Central and Naperville North.

“I’m super happy that we’re still having a season this year because when I first heard the decision that it’s getting cut, I was super upset about that,” said Naperville Central gymnast Tim Engman. “But I mean, everything worked out, we still get a season. Most of the teams that we faced last year are still going to be the same, so not much has changed.”

Kids now have the option to play more spring sports than ever before, in addition to clubs and activities. Since 2006, the IHSA has added six sports (cheerleading, dance, boys and girls lacrosse, girls wrestling and girls flag football) as well as two activities (bass fishing, esports), with several of them falling during the spring. Boys and girls water polo was also introduced in 2002.

“I think that with so many options, gymnastics is just kind of feeling that pinch.”

Club sport through the Illinois High School Gymnastics Coaches Association

Starting this spring, the Illinois High School Gymnastics Coaches Association (IHSGCA) will run the sport across the state. It will be under a club format similar to ice hockey and field hockey, plus it’s gotten full support from District 203.

“We’re very happy,” said Dan Bajek, Naperville Central Boys Gymnastics Coach since 2020. “District 203 is very supportive of boys gymnastics, so this year, Naperville North, and Naperville Central still have teams, and we’re still under the athletics umbrella of things. We get support from the district and our schools, so we’re very excited about that.”

Now under the IHSGCA, coaches from every team meet once a month during the season, acting like the governing body of the sport. Everything will be run through the organization, with the scheduling and format looking very close to what it’s been like the past few seasons.

Sectionals will be held the first week of May, and the State Series will be on May 11th, at Hoffman Estates, where the IHSA state meet has been held since 2018.

A low number of qualified judges could seem like a reason for gymnastics being taken away from the IHSA, but finding available quality officials is a challenge beyond just gymnastics.

“I think the biggest changes are the ones behind the scenes,” said Stanicek. “Who’s running it, how meets are being run, and that sort of thing. On the surface, if you were to come in and watch a high school gymnastics meet, it would look very similar to what it always has been.”

“The only thing that changed was the higher-up stuff and we don’t we don’t really mess with that, so nothing’s changed,” said Naperville North gymnast Jack Halama, who placed fourth place on the parallel bars at last year’s state meet.

Local success at the IHSA Boys Gymnastics State Series

Naperville Central and Naperville North have been the lone Naperville-area schools to field full IHSA rosters, but all six local schools have been represented by at least one individual participant with several making their marks in the history books.

The first IHSA State Series was held in 1952, and Naperville North has qualified for 10 of them as a team, the eighth most from any school in Illinois. 

The Huskies won state as a team in 2001 under legendary coach Brad Foerch, and they beat Brad’s younger brother, Doug who led Mundelein to second place by just 1.55 points. Brad Foerch was at the helm of Naperville North from 1982 to 2016, and he also led the team to runner-up in 1993.

Naperville Central’s best-ever finish was a third-place trophy in 1994, while Redhawk Steve Bajusz was the first-ever local individual event champion, winning the high bar in 1984. Another Redhawk, Keith Lage was the floor exercise and the still rings state champion in 2008.

Individual champions from Naperville North include Ryan Trent winning the Pommel Horse state championship in 1993. Jon Joyce took first in the Vault in 2000, while Adam Rahmel was the floor exercise state champion, also in 2000.

Benet Academy has had just one boy gymnast in its history, while Neuqua Valley, Metea Valley, and Waubonsie Valley have had multiple individual competitors throughout the years. Wes Diveney from Neuqua Valley was the Still Rings co-state champion in 2015, and Wildcat Eric Mitchell was the Pommel Horse state champion in 2017.

Naperville North gave the IHSA a proper sendoff with an eighth-place finish at the final state series in 2023 for the Huskies, their first top-ten finish in over a decade.

“To be able to represent Naperville North at the state meet, knowing that was the last IHSA state meet, it was exciting,” said Stanicek.

Now, Just one meet into the 2024 season, Central has already recorded its highest team score in over two years, while North started with a big win over Stevenson behind an exciting mix of veteran experience and young talent. Despite the absence of the IHSA, the Naperville boys gymnastics scene is still flying high.

For more prep sports stories, visit the Naperville Sports Weekly page!