When Steve and Michael Zieja were four years old their father Stan made a habit of bringing his boisterous twin sons to work. As an athletic trainer at Amherst, where he's worked for the past 25 years, Stan had the coolest job and Amherst was the coolest place—a vast wonderland of courts, gymnasiums and offices with long corridors that led to secret rooms. There were a zillion areas to explore, and the fraternal twins explored them quite often. The best place of all was LeFrak Gymnasium, especially during men's basketball practice, where they knew they'd find their Dad taping ankles and treating injuries and Coach David Hixon '75 barking instructions and choreographing plays. They idolized and mimicked generations of Amherst basketball players from Yram Groff '89 to Jamal Wilson '97, whose influence on the boys is unmistakable.
Entering their final years of college, Steve at Amherst and Michael at St. Anselm College in Manchester, N.H., the twins have blossomed into two of the best small-college basketball players in the nation. Steve, a 6' 5", 215-pound power forward, averaged 18.2 points and 7.1 rebounds last season and captained the Jeffs to their third consecutive NCAA Tournament and first trip to the NCAA "Sweet 16" since 1994. Michael poured in 16.7 points per game and set an NCAA Division III single-game record by shooting 12-for-12 from the floor, including seven three-pointers, in a game against Southern Connecticut State University. Each will captain his respective team this winter.
Stories of their exploits growing up are countless—especially the fights. The boys would scuffle at the drop of a hat, anytime, anywhere, usually at Amherst. "We were usually fighting, and always causing trouble," says Steve. "We'd beat each other up big-time. Michael's been in the hospital for stitches. I knocked out his two front teeth. That's what I remember most from those early days in the gym: constantly fighting."
Most of the scraps were basketball-related. Steve was bigger and bullied his brother under the basket. Michael was quicker, a better shooter and forced Steve to chase him around the perimeter. Their contrasting styles made for a combustible mix. "We could never finish a game of one-on-one," Michael says. "We'd argue about fouls and end up throwing the ball at each other."
The twins were always competitive. They went to countless basketball camps, including the annual Western Mass. camp at Amherst. Stan remembers a particular session when the boys were separated because of their disparity in size. As the larger of the two, Steve was placed with the older, more advanced players. Michael was livid. "He said 'I'll show you,' " Stan recalls. "Michael won all the awards in the lower group that year, just to show he belonged in the upper group with Steve."
As they grew older the twins went to nearly every Amherst game and practice. They traveled to road games on the team bus and, shortly after entering the seventh grade, joined the Jeffs on a week-long trip to North Carolina. There the team practiced and scrimmaged in 10,000-seat arenas on the campuses of Atlantic Coast Conference schools, which are regularly among the best and most competitive basketball programs in the nation. The boys were awestruck and decided that basketball was the sport for them. "We played three sports growing up, but it was around the time of that North Carolina trip that we started focusing on one," Steve says. "Being in those gyms and around the guys, that's when I decided basketball was the sport I wanted to play."
It's also when they began steering their competitive energy away from fighting and toward improving their hoop skills. An oft-told story from the Carolina trip involves Hixon sending the boys out to the van to fetch the basketballs for practice. Ten minutes went by with no sign of the twins or the balls. A fight had broken out and the boys were scuffling like alley cats in the parking lot. "I finally went outside to see what the problem was," says Hixon. "Michael was carrying the balls and Stan had Steve by the collar shaking his finger at him. They were both bright red. All hell must have broken loose in the parking lot. Stan was totally exhausted by the end of the trip."
At the time, the twins idolized Jamal Wilson, who went on to score 1,550 career points, more than any player in Amherst history. His example proved to be a turning point for the boys. "Jamal came right when we were in junior high and wasn't your typical Amherst player," Steve explains. "He was a kid from the city who was really raw when he got here. He had a lot of flavor to his game and my brother and I used to copy him. He would hang around the gym after practice and play with us. Jamal was the one who got us to focus our aggression on the court instead of on fighting."
Unified, the pair emerged as a formidable tandem in high school, playing five years of varsity basketball at tiny Hopkins Academy in nearby Hadley, Mass. In a scene right out of Hoosiers, with a graduating class of just 38, the Ziejas led Hopkins to the Division III Massachusetts State Championship game as seniors, where they lost by just two points. People looked at the team as "the two Ziejas and a group of small-town Hadley kids," which is basically what it was. The boys were excellent students and burgeoning basketball stars, and college recruiters took notice.
Steve explains, "My hope was originally Princeton. I got some letters from them before my senior year and they came to see me play twice during the summer and at camps. That fall, our school's athletic director came into my biology class and said, 'Steve, we've got Princeton on the phone, they want to talk to your brother.' I said, 'All right, I guess that's it for Princeton.' They started recruiting Michael hard core, but in the end he decided to go to St. Anselm and I ended up at Amherst."
In college, both players contributed right off the bat, and Steve emerged as one of the best players in Amherst history. As a freshman the precocious rookie averaged 7.8 points and 4.7 rebounds, was the first player off the bench and was always in the game at crunch time as the Jeffs made their first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1997. His sophomore season brought yet another NCAA Tournament berth and Steve was a Second-Team All-NESCAC selection, finishing fourth in the conference in rebounding (8.6 rpg), fifth in scoring (17.8 ppg), and sixth in free throw percentage (.787). He then exploded as a junior, earning First-Team All-NESCAC, First-Team D3Hoops.com All-Northeast, Second-Team Verizon Academic-All District, First-Team All-ECAC and First-Team NABC All-District (Northeast Region) honors.
Steve played perhaps his finest basketball in the 2002 NESCAC Postseason Championship Tournament, averaging 25.0 points and 6.7 rebounds in victories over Bowdoin, Williams and Trinity Colleges, earning NESCAC and ECAC Player of the Week honors for his efforts. In the championship game against top-seeded host Trinity he poured in a game-high 32 points, including 21 in the first half, scoring 10 straight during an early 17-6 Amherst run. He also posted a double-double 29-point, 10-rebound performance in the Jeffs' 71-61 quarterfinal win over Bowdoin and added 14 points in a 69-62 semifinal win over Williams. Amherst is 6-0 in NESCAC Tournament play since his arrival.
"There have been few players during my years—Groff, Wilson and Zieja among them—who made an immediate impact as freshmen and went on to become truly dominant players," says Hixon. "Steve's one of only two two-year captains we've had and he's been a key factor in three straight NCAA Tournaments. He's one of the top four or five players in Amherst history."
Steve has made a habit of zooming past many of the players on Amherst's all-time scoring list that he grew up idolizing. His 1,213 career points are ninth all-time at the college, with Wilson's school record of 1,550 points well within reach. He'll also pass Groff, whose 1,488 points rank him third all-time, along the way
"The scoring record is something I'd think about only if I ran into Jamal so I could say, 'Hey, I got you,' " jokes Steve. "All I really care about is winning a National Championship. It might be something down the line I'll come to appreciate, like at my 50th reunion, but right now it's not even really a concern."
Perhaps the most rewarding thing for the Ziejas is that Steve and his father Stan have been able to coexist peacefully at Amherst, and either Stan or his wife Kathy has been able to make every one of Michael's games at St. Anselm. "It's been a great pleasure for me to see Steve play and I've been fortunate to see Mike play some big games as well, like when he went 12-for-12," says Stan, who was promoted from assistant to head athletic trainer in 1984. "We're happy about them going to two separate colleges because we've had two great experiences. We were concerned that by going to the same college it would be too much like high school. It's hard to believe they only have one year left. I'll miss it immensely."
Not to say the relationship between Steve and Stan hasn't had its awkward moments. "At first he would come in the training room and not say anything to me," Stan adds. "I had to tell him it was okay to say hello. I've also had the awkward experience of getting his e-mails, and there have been some pretty interesting ones. I just tell him 'hey, it's no big deal.' I forward the messages and move on."
Through it all the rivalry between Steve and Michael has barely quieted. They train together during the summer and constantly argue over which team is better, St. Anselm or Amherst. Michael brags about his NCAA-record 12-for-12 shooting day and Steve promptly dismisses it, asking "What have you done for me lately?"
They've ached to play against each other since they went away to college but a matchup hasn't been in the cards. St. Anselm is Division II, Amherst is Division III. Teams from different divisions seldom meet, especially in basketball.
After persistent badgering by both Ziejas, however, Amherst and St. Anselm have agreed to play a preseason scrimmage on Saturday, November 16, at LeFrak Gymnasium, and both sides are already gearing up for battle.
"I'm going to be with his team for three weeks this summer working basketball camp at St. Anselm," notes Steve. "I'll get to know them well so I'll basically have a scouting report ready for the fall. One thing about coming to Amherst and not going to school with Michael, I've missed playing alongside him for the past three years. As teammates, we always knew what the other was thinking. Playing against him will be kind of a reverse effect. He'll be able to use the things he knows against me and I'll be able to do the same against him."
Translation: It'll be a war.
With all five starters returning and a bench longer than War and Peace, Amherst should once again advance deep into the postseason this winter, with possibly its best-ever chance at a Division III National Championship. After graduation, the boys hope to continue playing basketball overseas. To help their chances, they're working toward gaining dual citizenship in Poland, as most European teams reserve roster spots for only two Americans.
"You don't realize how fast the years go by," Steve laments. "I can't fathom that I only have one season left. Basketball won't have died inside me when I graduate. If I could just play in Europe for two or three years, it would be like a dream. I'm not ready to give up basketball at this point."
If all goes according to plan, Steve and Michael will be reunited on a European League team, playing together for the first time since high school. God forbid they end up on different clubs in the same league. They might kill each other.
Sports Information Director
Photo by Frank Ward