VILLA PARK — So who's the better quarterback?
Ask Sam and Nick Stremick, and the brothers usually respond with a quick exchange of looks and nervous laughter. It's a question they will no doubt hear a lot as the prep football season wears on.
Suffice it to say that both have fared pretty well so far.
Sam, 18 and a senior, is Villa Park's quarterback. Nick, 16 and a junior, plays for Mater Dei.
Sam, who transferred from Mater Dei to Villa Park in 1994 after his sophomore year because many of his friends were there, took over as quarterback on short notice this summer when Coach Pat Mahoney couldn't find a satisfactory replacement for Sean McMahon, who graduated in June.
It was not an easy decision for Sam. He was an outstanding wide receiver and defensive back last year, leading the county with eight interceptions. He figured the colleges that might be interested in him would like to see him stay there, not start over at the most complicated position on the team.
"I had never played quarterback in a varsity game," said Sam, who has completed 20 of 35 passes for 321 yards and two touchdowns in helping the Spartans to a 2-0 start. "I had played some in Pop Warner, and as a freshman.
"When asked to do it, I told the coaches no problem. [But] it has forced me to do more thinking about the game. Last year, I didn't know our offense that well; this year, I've had to become a student of football."
Nick faces a different pressure. Mater Dei is not only the defending Division I champion, but the Monarchs also have the county's longest winning streak at 16 games. Add to that the unspoken demand for excellence; winning is a given, not a surprise.
Nick, who completed 13 of 28 passes for 181 yards and one touchdown in Mater Dei's two victories, said it has taken him time to realize he did not have to be John Elway--or John Flynn, who guided the Monarchs to a 14-0 record last season--to be effective.
"I did look up to Flynn and tried to pattern my game after his," Nick said. "But I learned from him last year that the tough part of this game is the mental part. One week they would criticize him, and the next week put him on a pedestal."
Born in Yakima, Wash., 16 months apart, Sam and Nick are the middle children of Nancy and Lou Stremick. (Katie is 20 and Megan, a Mater Dei student, is 15.) When they were younger, the boys could pass for twins. They shared a room until junior high school. But they don't share personalities; Sam is outgoing and Nick tends to be reserved and serious.
"If I go somewhere with Sam, we'd be the last ones to leave," Nancy said. "If I went somewhere with Nick, he'd be the first one to say, 'Let's go, mom.' "
Their sporting makeup is a contrast as well. Nick readily admits Sam is the better athlete "with speed and quickness." Sam describes Nick as "the pure, dropback quarterback" of the two.
What they share is competitiveness, especially around each other. Nancy remembers a time when their grandfather took them to play golf. "When he got back," she said, "he told me, 'The next time I take them out, it will be one at a time. They were trying to kill each other out there.' "
But that spirit has helped the Stremicks overcome several obstacles to get where they are today.
At Mater Dei, Nick dueled David Castleton for the starting quarterback job during spring practice and summer passing league. The coaches liked Castleton's athleticism, but Nick's stronger arm and excellent junior varsity season at quarterback last year gave him an edge. Eventually, the coaches moved Castleton to wide receiver and defensive back, filling two positions they felt were depleted by graduation.
In the opening game against Servite, that decision looked shaky. Nick had a difficult time against the Friars' constantly shifting and blitzing defense, and the Monarchs needed a 67-yard touchdown run by Byron Schley in the fourth quarter to win, 10-7.
Last week against Long Beach Jordan, however, Nick was more relaxed and ran the offense with near flawless precision. He completed seven of 11 passes for 93 yards and a touchdown in a 35-6 victory.
"We feel Nick has a lot of potential to develop into a fine quarterback," Monarch Coach Bruce Rollinson said. "A lot of growth potential.
"We did all we could to try and get Nick to realize when you take the step up to varsity, it's a whole new ball game. Down the road, that first game [against Servite] could prove a positive for Nick in that he won't see any more than he saw that night in regard to blitzes and front changes. Against Jordan, he kept the car between the lines, didn't speed it or crash it."
Besides, Nick said, he worked too hard holding off Castleton in the summer to keep playing badly.
"I told myself it was my job," Nick said.