IN THE SPOTLIGHT
The most extraordinary performer at last weekend’s boys gymnastics state meet looked forward to being … ordinary.
Off the mats, that is.
“I get to be a regular teenager,” said Highland Park High School junior Kevin Connors, referring to a summer in which he won’t devote the bulk of it to sharpening his vast number of skills at Buffalo Grove Gymnastics Center — his club home for nearly eight years.
“I’ll still work out, just not as a club gymnast. I’ll get a job, and maybe I’ll caddie.”
The 5-foot-8, 145-pound Connors — a first-year high school gymnast — hit the equivalent of monster, super-accurate drives at the state meet at Hoffman Estates High School May 11-12, tying for first place in the all-around (55.6, with Willowbrook senior and University of Illinois Chicago recruit Adam Sousa) on Day One and following that up with a dazzling two-gold, two-silver, one-bronze show in the event finals on Day Two.
Only one other boy gymnast from HPHS, Larry Milstein, had left a state meet with a gold medal. Milstein and two others topped the parallel bars field with a 9.55 in 2005, when School District 113’s lone boys gymnastics program was a co-op squad with athletes from HPHS and Deerfield High School.
“Kevin Connors is amazing,” Giants sophomore gymnast Lucas Absler said. “Write that down. Write that Lucas Absler said, ‘Kevin Connors is amazing.’
“He’s fun to watch, too,” Absler added.
Connors captured gold on still rings (9.6) and parallel bars (9.55) in the event finals May 12; took silver on high bar (9.35) and tied for runner-up honors on pommel horse (9.4); and bronzed on floor exercise (9.5).
Connors looked magnificent throughout his rings routine, making ultra-difficult strength moves appear easy in his favorite event. Standouts on rings need to be powerful and controlled and smooth.
Connors is all three.
At one point, as the spectators and judges admired a perfectly still Connors hold a press-to-handstand in the middle of his rings gig, nobody would have been surprised had someone in the bleachers shouted, “Hey, who allowed the established Division I gymnast to enter the field?”
Highland Park coach Doug Foerch, also the coach of state champion Deerfield, took zero credit for Connors’ exceptional repertoire.
“Lots of talent, with a high level of skills, plus he’s consistent,” said Foerch, named Boys Gymnastics Coach of the Year (for his work with HPHS and DHS) before the start of last weekend’s event finals. “I didn’t teach Kevin any skills. I helped him with techniques, here and there, and I helped him reconfigure his routines to conform to the rules of high school gymnastics.”
Connors, the former club gymnast, entered a completely different gymnastics world when he opted to compete for his school’s colors. Laser-focused club gymnasts typically train in total silence; prep gymnasts train hard but find the time to decompress and mingle with their teammates in between drills.
“Way better,” Connors said of the atmosphere at high school practices and meets. “Laid back, fun. Not as much pressure. The pressure I felt this weekend was the pressure to help my team (on May 11, during the meet’s segment for the state’s top eight teams; HPHS, in its first appearance in the team competition, placed seventh with 152.55 points).
“I didn’t mind that kind of pressure.”
Connors had someone else in mind after tying Sousa for the all-around title on the same day. That someone else: Sousa. A state official could hand out only one gold medal for the all-around; another would have to be ordered and delivered later.
“I let Adam take the medal,” Connors said on the night he got to haul five event medals home.
None of HP’s varsity gymnasts will collect a diploma this spring. In addition to Connors and Absler, Giants gymnasts Tim Steves (junior), Brandon Baban (sophomore), Matt Hyatt (sophomore) and Anthony Hyatt (freshman) all have at least one more year of eligibility.
“Kevin became more and more a part of the team as the season went on, and he grew to enjoy the team concept and the team atmosphere that’s such a unique part of high school gymnastics,” Foerch said. “He ended up loving the chance to help the team.”
Connors emerged as an unpaid assistant coach many times this spring. He didn’t mind the extra duty, and he had not choice but to accept the “salary”.
“Kevin was there to help out if any of us needed him,” Absler recalled. “If we were doing a routine incorrectly in a practice, he’d give us advice on how to fix it. I think he liked being a vocal teammate, liked being helpful, after going through all of those quiet club practices.
“Kevin got into telling us what to do, got into showing us what to do.”
Notable: Highland Park/Deerfield boys gymnastics coach Doug Foerch guided Deerfield to its first state championship last weekend, a year after his Warriors placed third at state. One of the most knowledgeable and passionate coaches and judges in the state, Foerch, a multiple Coach of the Year honoree (including 2018), led Mundelein High School teams to boys gymnastics state championships in 1989, 1990, 1993, 1998, 1999 and 2000. He owns a 32-year dual meet record of 239-83 (.742).