Boys gymnastics: Limited numbers won't limit Lake Park

By Chris Walker
Daily Herald Correspondent
Updated 4/20/2021 9:49 PM

Last spring, no one could have imagined that when Ryan Czech appeared in two meets before the season was canceled that it would make him the most experienced high school gymnast at Lake Park this season.

Sometimes oddities are awesome.


Behind Czech, freshman Karl Vachlin, first-year gymnast, junior Martavious Owten and new coach Frank Novakowski, the Lancers are breaking program records and have put themselves in a position that they potentially could wrap their season at the state meet.

"We could possibly qualify for the state meet for the first time in 13 years," Novakowski said. "I think we're eighth or ninth right now and our kids just broke the event total record for floor. They went 28.0 and broke the previous 27.75 that was set in 2008, which was the last time a team from here went to state and took fifth."

The Lancers have to stay healthy as all their scoring is coming from Czech, Vachlin and Owten, which may sound like a lawyer firm, but is anything but a bad lawyer joke. Vachlin is the Lancers' top scorer.

"Yesterday in practice for the first time I really heard them cheering each other on and getting each other motivated," Novakowski said. "They're starting to bond now so we'll see how they put it together."

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Novakowski, who accepted the science curriculum leader position at Lake Park last summer and left his position as the Glenbard West head coach, was able to piece together the squad by finding Owten on the Lake Park cheer squad.

"I met him and invited him to join the team but didn't hear much back from him," Novakowski said. "On the first day of the season he showed up and said 'Yeah, coach, I'm ready.' Gymnastics are something he's always wanted to try and he's an incredibly hard worker and good athlete and he loves the team aspect and team atmosphere."

Owten is a member of the Chicago Boyz Acrobatic Team and has appeared on "America's Got Talent," but now it's his talent along with Czech and Vachlin's that has the Lancers aspiring to be among the best teams in the state.

"He came in with tumbling experience, of course, but he's picked up the five other events in five weeks," Novakowski said. "He's amazing. He's the fastest learner I've ever coached."


State series update:

On Monday, the IHSA released its state final tournament information with the finals set to return to Hoffman Estates on May 14-15. This year there will be six sectionals rather than the typical five. Downers Grove North, Glenbard West, Hinsdale Central, Hinsdale South, Lake Park and Palatine will host sectionals May 3-8. The six sectional champions and the top two scoring teams that do not win a sectional will advance to state.

Hilltoppers win District 87:

All-arounder Grant Williams and multi-event specialists Luis Garcia and Corey Mosher have Glenbard West in a good place as the seniors led the Hilltoppers to the District 87 title last Saturday.

"We don't have a superstar, but we have a really deep team," Hilltoppers coach Carlos Fuentes said. "We have a lot of experience on the senior level and the upcoming juniors had to grow up pretty quickly because they didn't get a sophomore year to get ready for varsity."

Fuentes said Garcia, Mosher and Williams "are driving the train and doing the heavy lifting," and has praised the selfless efforts of the team to step up and compete in events that maybe they haven't competed in a long time.

Gordon Lawson is one such kid, adding on the challenge of still rings despite being a traditional floor exercise and vault specialist.

"He picked up still rings three weeks ago," Fuentes said. "He's an athlete so it's worked out well for us. Everyone wants to step up and help us."

At 6-feet, AJ Braun isn't the typical size of a team's top floor guy, but Braun has literally risen into that role for the Hilltoppers.

"He's been kind of carrying the load there and is having a really great year," Fuentes said.

Juniors David Wuertzer and Jacob Kowalczyk have also stepped up for a Hilltoppers team that will host the final sectional on May 8.

"We'll host at 6 p.m. on Saturday so we'll know what we need for an at-large (score) to get in (to state), I think," Fuentes said. "It'll be competitive and we're as strong as anyone so we have a chance like anyone to win."

Growing gains:

Daniel Housour had his own unique take on the freshman 15 -- he grew six inches taller and gained 40 pounds.

The Glenbard North sophomore is not only literally bigger and stronger than ever before, but he hasn't missed a beat as a gymnast, which he proved on Saturday winning the all-around (49.1) as well as the floor exercise, vault, high bar and parallel bars in the District 87 meet.

"I went from 5-5, 5-6, 120 (freshman year) to 6-foot, 160 (today)," he said. "It's been quite the change on the different events."

Last season's early shutdown didn't provide Housour with the opportunity to showcase his talents. This season people are taking notice.

"He wasn't able to shine, to let people know who he was because of COVID," Panthers coach Dennis Wellman said. "This year he has taken it seriously. He wants to win. I wouldn't be surprised if he comes out as conference all-around champ. He's really dedicated his time in the gym."

Housour said his physical growth hasn't hindered him and that he's a better gymnast today than he was when he was a little freshman 12 months ago.

"I still need to pack on more muscle, but overall there hasn't been that much of a change," he said. "I think I have done way higher skills and cleaned up my routines overall from last year and I've got better form so just overall I'm scoring better and hitting my routines cleaner."

He'd love to lead the Panthers to state for the first time since 2009 so that remains the big goal.

"We're keeping our eyes set on that goal, but not looking too much at the other competition," he said. "We're looking to beat the scores we had at our last meet."

The Panthers, who took second at the District 87 meet, are getting six scores from Housour while the remaining 12 are coming from Mitchell Grafer, Alex Nguyen, Dan Ochowicz and Jamie Jacob.

"We're cranking along trying to make this fun and it's been exciting with scores higher than bigger schools so we're keeping up," Wellman said. "I'm so proud of these guys."

The fun is running wild in Carol Stream.

"It's been a really neat experience and with all the guys up here and spending so much time during the season, they're like a second family to me so it's been nice to bond with them," Housour said. "Between practice and bus rides, meets and stuff, it's been a cool experience. I've connected with kids from school that are not in the same grade but with similar interests."

Jumpin' around in Naperville:

Joey Sciabica used to jump around on former Naperville North gymnast Eric Loid's trampoline around the same time that Ethan He was visiting Sky High Sports in Naperville regularly.

Today, the two are the senior co-captains of the Naperville North boys gymnastics team leading the Huskies in a sport that neither had ever truly participated until their freshmen year debuts.

"I originally joined because I thought it was a way to make new friends, and I was a little chubby and could lose some weight," Sciabica said. "As the years have progressed, and I've grown to understand the sport more, it's become really cool to learn new skills and to think about them throughout the day. Gymnastics has turned into something that I'm thinking about all the time and I've made a lot of lifelong friends. I still talk to someone I met three years ago in the program."

He said after having a pleasurable introduction to gymnastics his freshmen year that the decision to come back sophomore year was easy. Now, the four-year run is about over.

"I didn't realize this would become such a big part of my life," He said. "Everyday it's my workout and I get to see my friends, and it's something that (coach Chris Stanicek) talks about how when we go into the gym it's like entering a new realm where you have to forget your other stuff and commit two-and-a-half hours of working on what we're doing and having fun."

He didn't know Sciabica before high school, but they shared a class together freshmen year and have become friends, teammates and leaders. Both were optimistic that they'd compete again as Huskies despite the pandemic shutdown and are reaping the many benefits of being a high school student-athlete this spring.

"The reason I like this sport so much is it's a judgment free zone," Sciabica said. "Sometimes people in other sports are scared to join because they'll be heckled by upperclassmen. We celebrate the little skills just as much as we celebrate the big skills. It's been really cool. I wasn't really expecting it the first time I joined a sport, I was kind of nervous, but it came in with warm hugs and everything. It was very nice."

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