IHSA ends boys gymnastics state series

Too few schools participating, Hinsdale Central intends to maintain as club sport

Hinsdale Central's boys gymnastics program was the envy of the state 50 years ago, winning four straight Illinois High School Association titles from 1970-73. The team's championship in 1995 made nine total, still more than any other school.

It's a record that may now never be broken as the IHSA has decided to discontinue the boys gymnastics state series due to low participation.

In a June 12 press release announcing the end of both the boys gymnastics and debate state series, IHSA Executive Director Craig Anderson acknowledged the decision was difficult but in accordance with IHSA policy requiring at least 7 percent of member schools to have a team.

"After years of decline in participation, boys gymnastics and debate no longer meet the threshold required by IHSA policy to conduct a state series," Anderson said.

Girls gymnastics is not affected.

Mark Wanner, former longtime Hinsdale Central head coach and 2006 Illinois High School Gymnastics Coaches Association State Coach of the Year honoree, was aware the number of schools competing had dropped but was surprised at the abrupt nature of the move.

"I didn't think they were going to end the state series now. I thought they were going to give us some time to try and right the ship," said Wanner, who was instrumental in preparing the new Krupicka Gymnastics Gym that opened at Central earlier this year. "It's unfortunate for us at Hinsdale Central because we got a new gym. We did so much work on getting this gym going."

Former Central gymnast Matthew Cihlar, now a sophomore at Rice University, remembered how going to state was the potential payoff for the rigorous hours of training and feels bad for the current Red Devils squad.

"The state meet was something the whole team could rally behind the entire season," he said. "I remember how hard our team worked to get there during my tenure, and I'm certain today's team is looking to repeat that experience."

In his statement, Anderson said the IHSA, a private nonprofit organization, showed patience before making the determination.

"Boys gymnastics and debate both dipped below 7 percent several years ago, and to our board of directors' credit, they provided a grace period in hopes that both might experience a rejuvenation after the pandemic, but unfortunately, that has not occurred at a level that allows either to meet the policy," he related. "There is undoubtedly a level of disappointment that we feel for the impacted students and coaches. Yet, we also recognize that we must adapt in order to provide opportunities for as many students as possible."

Current Central head coach CJ Johnson suggested that many schools around the state either don't have the enrollment or the wherewithal to support a boys gymnastics team and all the equipment and gym space necessary. Even recruiting for Central's team has become increasingly challenging.

"The times are different and kids are different in terms in what activities they want to do," Johnson said. "We just don't get the numbers that we need to grow. We've got to sell ourselves harder."

The hope going forward, Johnson and Wanner said, is to maintain boys gymnastics as a club team and for the IHSGCA to coordinate an alternative state series, similar to the way high school ice hockey operates. It's unclear how many other schools would sign on to that plan.

"There's a lot of athletic directors that will drop it," Wanner said. "I don't foresee schools keeping three coaches, and a lot of coaches are going to lose some revenue because there's going to be (stipend reductions)."

Johnson said Central leadership has told him that the program will be supported at current levels for at least another year.

"We have the opportunity to give our kids an experience for one more year," he said. "I hope (the IHSGCA) can come up with a solution to see if we can work on keeping this going. We hope to survive."

To help stoke interest in the sport locally, Johnson and his wife, Jeanne, a former gymnastics coach, are hosting open gyms for ages 6-18 Friday nights through July at the Krupicka gym (see sidebar). Johnson said gymnasts tend to be shorter athletes that don't see themselves in other sports, and he wants to expose them to this option.

Wanner said the passion gymnasts feel for the sport motivate them to find a path to keep competing.

"Now it's just trying to reevaluate and just try to come up with a new idea going forward," he said.

Cihlar said losing IHSA status is a big blow but hopes high school gymnasts are given a new goal to soar for.

"Now that that's gone, there will definitely be a hole towards the end of the year that should be filled by something," he said.

Author Bio

Ken Knutson is associate editor of The Hinsdalean