NORTH SMITHFIELD – While senior guard and tri-captain Walker Strick and his elated North Smithfield High teammates celebrated their first-ever state hoop championship on the Pizzitola Center floor last Sunday afternoon, head coach T.J. Ciolfi scrambled to find someone to film the happenings.
It didn't take long for him to see Keila Strick, senior tri-captain of the Northmen's girls squad. He immediately issued her his camera, and she went to work.
“I knew my wife wouldn't do it; I also knew Keila had the courage to go out on the floor to take the video,” Ciolfi laughed. “When Walker's around, so is she.”
It's been that way ever since the fraternal twins were born to Alan and Mona (Takahashi) Strick on April 19, 1995.
While Mona and her other two daughters – Lauren, 23, and Natasha, 21 – watched happily from the stands, Mom's mind drifted back to when she first informed her husband a new addition to the family was in the offing.
“At the time, we were living in Connecticut, and I was a few months pregnant; we already had two little girls, and I knew he was nervous because he wanted a boy,” Mona chuckled recently. “I had told him I was going to the doctor's (at Norwalk Hospital), and he said, 'Is it OK if I don't go with you for your ultrasound?' That's how worried he was.
“I found out I was going to have twins, and I was shocked,” she added. “They told me Baby A was a girl, but then said, 'We can't tell what Baby B is.' When I finally discovered (the gender), I called Alan and told him we were going to have a boy, and he was so excited! Then I said, 'We're going to have a girl, too,' and he responded, 'Oh, stop kidding with me!'
“He'd be so proud of Walker right now ...”
Her voice tapered off. When her twins – Keila is the eldest by just two minutes – were only eight, Alan died of mucosal melanoma, a rare, aggressive subtype of cancer whose clinicopathologic characteristics are not well understood. It can arise in any mucous membrane, and survival rates are very low.
“He just loved basketball; that was his favorite sport, along with tennis,” Mona noted. “He had so much fun coaching the twins, even when they were little, and I think that's why they have grown up liking it, too.”
The Strick twins have taken that adoration for hoop – actually, all sports – to a new level. This past fall, as they entered their senior year, both captained their respective Northmen soccer squads.
That's not all. While Walker already has seen his career's first state championship run come to fruition, Keila is hoping she and her teammates can snag one of their own when they begin Division II tourney action.
The eldest twin admits she's her brother's biggest fan, as they grew up playing sandlot and organized sports together.
“When Walker and the guys won the title, my sisters and I were as excited as he was,” Keila said. “I go to every one of his games that I can, and I do that because I feel I can definitely learn from him. I admire the way he plays, and how his team plays together.
“Walker was so psyched winning a state championship, and I know my father was there watching him,” she continued. “He passed away when we were eight, but I know – even though he's not here physically – he is in spirit. He's had such a positive impact on our everyday lives, and we think about him all the time.
“After all, he was our first coach, and he's our 'forever' role model. We owe him a lot.”
Walker indicated his dad made sure his youngest tandem would grow up playing sports, teaching them the fundamentals of everything from hoop to baseball, soccer to tennis.
“When we were younger, our father was our (North Smithfield) recreational basketball team's coach; I don't remember how old we were, but I'd say six or seven,” he explained. “I didn't think it was weird having a girl on our team. It was predominantly a boys' league, but there were a few girls involved, and Keila was one of them.
“She was better than a lot of the guys,” he added. “I was fine with Keila being on our team. She could definitely hold her own. She was a pretty good player. The same goes for soccer … Actually, this past summer, we played together again on the same rec basketball team. It was an outdoor league that had its games at the (North Smithfield) high school courts.
“There were probably only 10 girls in the league – there were six teams of 10 each – and we were in the same backcourt. I think we've played together so much, it's been a pretty cool bond. That's what makes this so special. We know what each other's thinking on the court. I know what she's going to do, where she'll be, and she knows the same thing.”
Then came a rather loaded question: OK, who's the more talented hoopster?
“I think Keila's better in basketball, and I think I'm better in soccer,” Walker smiled. “I don't score much on the basketball court; Keila's more of a shooter.”
Offered Keila: “You know Walker led us (the boys' soccer squad) in goals the past two years, and he finished second in the state for the most goals and assists?” (Her brother admitted he just missed the top spot, which belonged to Classical's Julio Jimenez).
“Soccer is more his sport, and hoop is mine,” she continued. “I feel with five people on the court, I can contribute more than I do on the soccer field.”
If it sounds like they have their own mutual respect society, they do – and then some.
“We're very close, and I think it's because we've grown up doing everything together,” she stated. “We have a natural rivalry, and we're very competitive with each other. I think a lot of it has to do with the fact we're twins; it was always positive motivation. Everything we've ever done is the same, and we'd try to beat each other.
“I'm sure I was a sore loser at some points,” she added with a giggle, “but I also believe I'm a pretty good athlete, and it's because of Walker. Playing against a boy is only going to make you better. Obviously, I think it helped having athletic parents. They always encouraged us to be outside playing, rather than just sitting inside and watching TV, or whatever.”
Alan and Mona both graduated from Staples High in Westport, Conn., and – according to the twins – neither represented their school squads.
“Our dad was more of a natural athlete,” Walker said. “He was always playing sandlot ball, and he started up what he called a 'scrub' basketball team to play in games against, well, other scrubs. Our mom was a big cheerleader, and she liked to run on her own.”
When asked if the two ever fight, be it at an athletic venue or in the kitchen for snacks or what TV show to watch, Keila firmly stated, “Never. We really don't. We're not a typical brother-sister (duo) who bicker. I think we understand each other very well, and I also think we're getting closer as we grow older.”
Not only do the youngest Stricks excel in their respective sports, but also the classroom. Right now, Keila ranks No. 1 in her senior class (of 138) with a weighted GPA of 4.0, while her “kid brother” is fourth with an unweighted 3.85.
“I don't know what it is unweighted, probably a 3.85, or something like that,” she chuckled. “I do know, out of 100, it's 94.3 … We really do have different interests, though.”
One of them is just around the corner. While Walker will play setter for the NSHS boys' volleyball squad for the third consecutive season, Keila will represent the boys' tennis team for the second time. The reason: She's good enough to do so.
“Because I play soccer in the fall, and the girls' tennis team plays in that season, our athletic director (Matthew Tek) allowed me to play on the boys' team last spring,” she noted. “I love soccer, but also tennis. I rotated in on the third doubles team, which was my first season ever playing boys' tennis, but I'm hoping to move up the ladder this time around.”
Their success knows no bounds. Walker will clinch his 12th consecutive letter for his school's athletic teams this coming spring, while Keila is anticipating her 10th, as she's earned four each in soccer (both play midfield) and hoop (each is a guard).
“I think we used to play similarly, but not in high school,” Walker mentioned. “I've had to take a different role. Keila's more of a scorer, and Coach (Ciolfi) will tell you I definitely am not. I'm more of a quarterback of the team, more of a passer and defender.”
Keila quickly interrupted, “But I think we're similar. I definitely shoot more than Walker, but I also like to pass like he does, and contribute to the team's success defensively.”
One hobby they have in common: Ping pong. When asked who wins more often, Walker merely grinned and pointed to his chest.
“It used to bother me when he won, but now that he's gotten better at it, I've pretty much accepted the fact I'm going to lose,” Keila giggled. “Still, I think we'd be closer in tennis.”
Mona promised she couldn't be prouder of her twins, or the whole family for that matter.
“You know his sister, Natasha, rented a car and drove up from (the University of Virginia) with a friend so she could watch Walker play?” Mom Strick said. “She loves watching them when she has time. We were all there at Brown, and we were so thrilled. My husband coached them from the time they were really little; they were always outside playing sports.
“To think they both were captains of their soccer and basketball teams, I don't think that happens very often,” she continued. “I couldn't be happier for them. They're both amazing kids, but they've worked hard for what they've achieved. They never fight, but none of them did really. I think that, since my husband passed away, Walker and Keila are even tighter.
“I love that!”