By Dick Quagliano
While many sports have not changed much since their inception as an Illinois High School Association approved sport, boys gymnastics has been constantly looking to improve.
"The sport has always been changing," said Addison Trail coach Fred Dennis. "But changing for the better. The routines are stronger, the equipment better and the scores are the highest ever."
The sport traces its roots in Illinois back to the 20's when Chicago Public League schools Lindblom and Senn began holding gymnastic classes during physical education. These classes evolved into interscholastic competition and the sport was born.
New Trier coach Joe Giallombardo picked up the sport in the 40's and began to introduce it throughout the suburbs. Arlington coach Gay Hughes along with Leyden coach DonVonEbers began to compete along with New Trier and University High School Chicago in 1953.
During that time, the University of Illnois began to sponsor a state finals series. It was competed in the old University of Illinois gymnasium and New Trier won the first state championship in 1952. The Trevians would go on to win four of the first six state championships.
With the hiring of Leroy Knoppel at Arlington and Bill Roetzheim at Proviso boys gymnastics began to flourish. Still, the sport had controversy surrounding which events would be competed.
A compromise was finally reached and an agreement on dual meet formats were adopted. Tumbling and trampoline, two staples with Chicago schools would still be competed, but they would not be part of the all-around program.
With that agreement in place, the Illinois High School Association took over sponsorship of the State championships. Proviso won the first official state championship with Ken Donofrio leading the way, winning the first all-around title.
There have been numerous changes in the routines that are competed. The current six routines: the floor, vault, high bar, parallel bars, still rings and the pommel horse have been competed together as a group since 1978.
The vault was added 1978, remaking an appearance after being competed from 1954 to 1958. The vault's return to competition replaced the trampoline, which was competed from 1952 to 1978.
Tumbling, which consisted of free tumbling on gym mats, was competed from 1952 to 1968. It was replaced by the free exercise, which later evolved into the current floor exercise.
"The old floor was really something," Hinsdale Central coach Neil Krupicka said. "It was not like today's floor at all. Since they were literally on the floor with a couple of mats, guys would start out at the other end of the gym for their first pass."
The scoring system has also undergone tremendous changes throughout the years.
Individuals have been scored on a 100-point system before the change to the current 10 point system.
The state meet has also undergone various scoring changes before settling on the current system where the eight state championship teams all compete on one day for the state title. In the past, there was individual qualifying and team competition on one day and the state finalists could increase their team score with a better performance at the individual finals.
"We went to this system to give the state qualifying teams their own competition," said Eric Liva, who is the head coach of Hinsdale South and current president of the Illinois Boys Gymnastics Coaches Association.
"This has the best teams in the gym at one time to decide a champion. There is no adding in scores the next day like the old system. You compete on one day for the team title and that's it."
Team champions have been decided since 1952 when Winnetka New Trier won the title with a score of 189. Since that time only 16 different schools have won the state championship.
Hinsdale Central has won more state titles than any other school, winning nine times. Addison Trail is second with seven titles, followed by Mundelein and Arlington, which have each won five times.
Only two schools have won the championship at least three consecutive years. Hinsdale Central won four titles in a row from 1970 through 1973 while Addison Trail won three in a row from 1980 to 1982.
The 1982 Addison Trail team, coached by Dennis, is considered to be the best in state history. The Blazers, led by Robby Brown, Neil Palmer, Scott Cazel, and Mike Harris scored a 169.508. That score included the team's top all-around average added back into the final score.
"There was a lot of depth there," said Dennis, who has coached all seven of his school's championship teams. "We had a few sixth men sitting that were awfully good. It was by far the best team we ever had."
Other great teams in the history of the state include the Conant team of 1998 that scored a 163.15 and last year's state championship team from Mundelein which set the modern day record of 164.85.
"That was a great team," said Mundelein coach Doug Foerch, who has coached all five of his school's championship teams. "It is a record we are very proud of."
While Addison Trail may have had the best team, no school has dominated the state meet like Hinsdale Central. The Red Devils have been to 25 state finals, winning a state trophy 19 times. Currently, Hinsdale Central has won 10 consecutive trophies for finishing as one of the top three teams in the state.
"We are very proud of what we have accomplished," said Krupicka, who has coached 6 state championship teams. "It is a real tribute to all the kids that have competed here."
While the team title has made up some of the drama at the state finals, it is still the individual competitors that have left the most sustaining memories.
Since 1952 there have been 1,611 awards for finishing in the top five of an event.
Those awards have been won by 880 different competitors hailing from 96 schools.
Surprisingly, the old Arlington High School has had the most top five finishers. Arlington, despite closing its doors in 1975, has had 101 medalists. They are followed by Addison Trail which has had 99, and Hinsdale Central which has had 90.
Arlington and Hinsdale Central have each had 58 different gymnasts win medals while York is third with 49.
There have been 35 all-around champions since the all-around was established in 1958. Proviso's Ken Donofrio won the first all-around title with Stevenson's Eric Block currently the defending state champion.
No gymnast has won the all-around title for three consecutive years, but seven gymnasts have won it two consecutive times. Proviso East's Richard Swetman did it the first time in 1965-66. He was followed by Niles West's Bart Conner in '74-'75; Conant's Marc Jones in '87-'88; Mundelein's T.J. Dortch '89-'90 and Jon Wasik in '92-'93; St. Viator's Matt Schoen in '94-'95; and Homewood-Flossmoor's Derek Hartman in '97-'98.
Of those names, the one to go on to better his gymnastic career was Conner. He appeared in the '84 Olympics winning the gold medal in parallel bars and picking another one up as member of the winning U.S. gymnastics team.
Conner's accomplishments in the Olympics overshadowed his high school performance. Conner was the first all-arounder to average a 9.0 or better.
He accomplished that feat in 1975 when he scored a 45.45 in the five events of the all-around. Conner was dominating in his performance that year winning the floor, the high bars and parallel bars and finishing second on the pommel horse.
That average of 9.09 stood until 1988 when Jones scored a 54.80 or a 9.13 average. Jones' all-around record has been broken three times and is currently held by Wasik with his score of 57.00 or 9.50 in 1993. Wasik was also exception in his performance, winning the parallel bars, rings and vault while finishing third on the floor and fourth in the high bar and the pommel horse.
While Wasik was dominant that year and in his career, he is second to Brown with the most top five finishes. Wasik had 14 top five finishes to Brown's 16. Conner won 13 medals while Doertch and New Trier's Ray Hadley, who competed in 1955-57 are next, each picking of 12 medals.
Brown and Conner are the only gymnasts to have ever won three consecutive individual state titles. Conner won three consecutive parallel bars from 1973-75 while Brown won three high bars from 1980-82.
During those times both set records for high score in the event. But with better equipment, coaching and new techniques, those records have fallen. Hartman currently holds the high bar record with a 9.80 in 1997. Jones broke Conner's record in 1988 when he scored a 9.80. Brown still holds the vault record, the oldest record still standing, with a 9.80 that he set in 1982.
Other state individual records include the floor, which is held by three people. They are: Wasik, Homewood-Flossmoor's Anthony Cirullo and Wheaton North's Matt Speedy with a 9.70.
The rings record is also held by a trio of gymnasts. They are Dave Johnson of St. Rita, Marc Chiapetta of Mundelein and Matt Lorek of Hinsdale Central, all of whom scored a 9.80.
The IHSA still maintains record scores for events that are no longer competed. York's Curt Austin, the current coach at Libertyville holds the mark for the free exercise, Pekin's Doug Reynolds for tumbling and Elk Grove's Dave Hadley for the trampoline.
Those marks may never be broken along with one more: the score for the pommel horse.
Only one gymnast in the 48-history since records have been kept, has achieved the ultimate in perfection. That came in 1996 when Glenbard West's Josh Levin scored a 10.00 in the finals of the pommel horse. That came on the heels of a 9.95 score in the preliminaries.
With the changes that have taken place in the sport, it may be only a matter of time when another gymnast matches Levin's score in the pommel horse or another event.
One thing's for certain: The excitement in boys gymnastics will never end.