Dropped by the IHSA, boys gymnastics determined to persevere next season
The process is just beginning, but leaders in the high school boys gymnastics community say there will be a season, and a state series, next spring.
Coaches, athletic directors and the Illinois High School Gymnastics Coaches Association are determined to make it happen.
"We're going to do our best to ensure that our gymnasts have a fulfilling and competitive gymnastics season," said C.J. Patton, IHSGCA president.
Fremd High School's junior varsity boys coach, Patton succeeded Fremd head coach Jason Brandenburg for a two-year term as association president in May - shortly before the Illinois High School Association board of directors' June 12 decision to withdraw its support of a state series due to low participation numbers.
Forty teams and five individuals competed in the 2023 state series, below the 7% threshold of the more than 800 IHSA member schools necessary to continue sponsorship of a sport or activity.
Patton joined a July 10 virtual IHSGCA steering committee meeting that included representatives from Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove, Palatine, Niles West and Lake Park, including two-time IHSGCA president Frank Novakowski.
(Returning individual state champions Karl Vachlin and Bryce Mensik, runner-up Luca Marzullo and medalist Sergio Fernandez from his 2023 team titlist, Novakowski certainly seeks to continue competition.)
A 24-year head coach who was the IHSA's head clinician for gymnastics officials, Novakowski said the committee discussed scheduling, plans for a state series, and officials, previously certified by the IHSA.
Official certification and liability coverage must now be handled outside of the IHSA framework.
"I would say that's the main thing," Novakowski said. "In regard to everything else I feel we're in a good spot where we can maintain the sport as it has been and not have the IHSA name on the state meet, but still run conference contests, still run invitationals and still run a state series."
Boys sectional hosts, he said, traditionally were based on the five teams with the highest average scores over the regular season. He said the new format may mirror the girls gymnastics' model of four sectionals at rotating, predetermined sites.
Another girls sport existing outside the IHSA, field hockey, may be another model.
Lake Park athletic director Pete Schauer, willing to take a leadership position in the next chapter of boys gymnastics, has been picking the brains of Glenbard West athletic director Joe Kain and Stevenson athletic director Trish Betthauser, who both have field hockey teams.
"We've been able to do that for 10-plus years, so I can see how we can sustain this, if we get together and collaboratively have a vision of it," Betthauser said.
She said Stevenson would be willing to host a state series meet in the spring, one of "multiple" schools Novakowski said might be interested.
"It's not so much a matter of 'if,' it's just 'where,'" Patton said.
Glenbrook North athletic director John Catalano offered another potential model: "The swimming association ran water polo for years and years without it being an IHSA sport, so I would think we can take a page out of their book from what they did over the years and move forward."
Coaching stipends, transportation costs, payment for officials and gym space all must be figured out.
"The facility thing is big, because if you're looking at less than 10 individuals on your team and dedicating space in your building to that on a daily basis, that's a tough sell," Betthauser said.
Quickly following the IHSA decision, Schauer sent a survey to participants in the 2023 boys gymnastics state series to gauge their desire to continue. Though not all had responded, he said he was "pleasantly surprised" by the results.
"We plan on supporting boys gymnastics next year and will continue to reevaluate after every season," Wheaton Warrenville South athletic director Mike Healy said in a statement supported by Community Unit School District 200.
Ultimately, school districts will make the decision on whether schools participate.
High School District 214 has decided against it, taking Buffalo Grove, Elk Grove, Hersey, Prospect and Rolling Meadows out of play. (Wheeling did not field a team in 2023.)
It is not a matter of money, District 214 Communications Coordinator Stephanie Kim said in an email.
"Statewide participation in this sport has been declining for years and has repeatedly failed to meet the IHSA's minimum 7 percent participation standard," she stated.
"Since student interest continues to evolve, the district is also evaluating the possible shift of resources into sports that are growing in popularity," Kim wrote.
Novakowski said a virtual meeting of the full IHSGCA was scheduled for July 12. There's more to come.
"Our intention is for it to be business as usual," Novakowski said.
"The lion's share of the discussions will occur when people return in August, then we'll talk administratively," Schauer said.