Sabrina and Nikki Phillips are identical twins who have followed identical paths in their athletic career.
Which makes Notre Dame High girls’ lacrosse coach Bryan Fisher twice as happy to have the seniors on his squad.
“They’re super athletes,” Fisher said before the season. “They’ve been like sponges, they soak it all in. They have grown so much in our system the last couple of years. This will be a real breakout year for them doing everything—clearing the ball, assisting on goals. I know they’re ready to be a real big part of it all.”
The Hamilton Square residents played outside defenders on opposite sides of the field their first two varsity seasons, and both have been asked to continue to do that while also moving up into an offensive-midfield position at times. They have the same responsibilities as each other, which is pretty much how it has always been.
Both girls did gymnastics as kids but Sabrina stepped away from the sport after breaking a finger on vault and hurting her back on bars. She began to explore other sports, while Nikki stayed with gymnastics for another year before breaking her foot. It was the first year they were apart when it came to sports.
They reconnected as Reynolds Middle School 8th-graders, joining the Garden State Elite lacrosse program and sticking with it through the summer.
“I looked at other things like cheerleading and basketball and soccer,” Sabrina said. “But when I hit lacrosse, it just worked. It was just me, what I wanted. Once I had my stick and my goggles that was it. Of course it was tough in the beginning, but you know how it is. You get a feeling of ‘I want to be there.’ It’s hard but I wanted to get better, I wanted to reach the goal of starting on a high school team and being where I am now.”
Nikki also embraced the sport instantly.
“The second I started lacrosse I said ‘Hey, this is it, it just feels right,’” she said. “When you know, you know. I loved gymnastics my whole life, but it became too much. Once you get nervous and scared of gymnastics, that’s it. We started lacrosse and instantly I loved it.”
That being said, they will always be grateful to the early foundation provided by gymnastics.
“It was very rough physically and mentally but I am where I am mentally because of gymnastics,” said Nikki, while Sabrina nodded in agreement. “Growing up I was taught from the sport that I need to be determined, I need to work hard if I want to achieve my goals in life. It taught me responsibility; everything I know, the way I work and who I am today.”
As freshmen, both played midfield for the Irish JV team. They were dropped to defense and started varsity as sophomores and have never looked back. They have thrived using physicality and athleticism, and have worked hard to improve.
“They understand positioning; they’re really difficult to get by,” Fisher said. “They just have gotten better at it every year. Their stick skills have improved. They play club in the summer and dedicate a lot to the game. It’s gonna pay off this spring big time.”
The twins showed flashes of scoring ability last year, as Sabrina had five goals and an assist while Nikki had four goals and three assists. But their main role was to defend.
“Being the wing, you need to be quick because it’s always back and forth,” Sabrina said. “Since coach Fish saw how we love to run and how quick we are, that spot worked perfectly. Something gymnastics taught me was quicker foot movements and every event required every part of my body so I felt like running was such a strength.”
They have run even more this year as they frequently venture into the attacking zone.
“I think doing both is really gonna help me,” Nikki said. “Last year my primary goal was to be better as a defender, to see the field better, to get my footwork better, my positioning as a defender. We didn’t get much time on offense. Now that coach is putting that on us, I’m really ready to take up that goal he’s setting for us.”
Sabrina concurred, saying “I’m excited about it. Last year I did some scoring but I thought more about defense. This year I’m hoping to get on both ends equally.”
Fisher feels the girls will continue to thrive defensively but will give them the green light to go to goal whenever they see an opening. He didn’t want them to just dabble in scoring, saying, “They’re gonna be a big part of our offense.”
Being twins, of course, the girls may start confusing defenders. They have already gotten double takes from the opposition’s attackers.
“All the time,” Sabrina said. “They’ll look at least once a game like “Wait, didn’t I just see that girl?”
The Phillips will continue to confuse foes in college as they have opted to attend national Division III power The College of New Jersey.
“It took us a little time to decide,” Nikki said. “There were times we were iffy, it took a little bit to get that point. But it’s a perfect fit for us. We’re very close with our family, we’re very close with each other. So it works there. We went and toured, it was comfortable, it’s where we’re meant to be.”
In trying to figure out what TCNJ coach Sharon Pfluger saw in the twins, they were asked to assess each other.
“Sabrina’s a very reliable, trustworthy player,” Nikki said. “She’s very aware of her surroundings on the field. She’s very quick on being able to decide how to move and where to move. When she’s either going one v one as an attacker or when she’s defending somebody she’s very comfortable, she knows what she’s doing. She’s always aware of who needs what. And whenever she needs help she’s very vocal with it.”
As for breaking down Nikki’s game, Sabrina said, “I think she’s very good. Although she’s on the opposite side of the field as me I know I don’t have to worry as much about what’s going on when the ball’s on her side because she knows what’s going on. When I call her name she turns her head in a second and answer me and she’s really loud on the field, which I love because I don’t have eyes in the back of my head. But I hear her and I think she’s very aware of the game and the skills she has.”
Fisher has that same awareness, not only of their skills, but their sticks. In a program with three sets of twins, the coach has developed little tricks to tell them apart.
“Sabrina has the white stick,” he said. “And Nikki has the black stick.”