Central senior deals with loss of his mother during basketball season
All the motivation Central Cougar senior Jack Strieker needs is written in a note from his mother, who died Feb. 7 after a 4 1/2 -year battle with cancer.
The words were written by Alicia Strieker, shortly before she lost the use of her hands.
“Jack, I’m so proud of the young man you have become,” the note reads. “I am your biggest fan. I love you.”
Alicia Strieker missed just one of her son’s games this season. But it’s her hand-written words that drive him.
“I read it every night before I go to bed because that was the last thing she ever wrote to me,” Jack said. “I read that before every game. I play for my mom. With what she went through ... she didn’t have to come to any of these games. She was in pain, and she went through that pain just so she could watch me come out and play.”
Jack turned his mother’s battle into his own crusade on the court, helping Central to a 23-4 record this season and a No. 9 state ranking in Class 3A as the team’s second-leading scorer and top rebounder. A year ago, he was a starter on the Central team that finished third at the Class 2A state tournament.
He’s averaging 13 points and 6.5 rebounds per game and will help lead the Cougars into the 3A playoffs next week as the No. 1 seed at the Civic Memorial Regional.
On Saturday, the day Alicia Strieker would have turned 47, her family laid her to rest at Lake View Memorial Gardens in Fairview Heights.
“She was our biggest fan and she loved to watch our team play and succeed,” said Jack, also a talented left-handed pitcher and hitter who will attend McKendree University on a baseball scholarship. “That’s what really drove me to be successful and want to win all those games. The last two months was when it got really bad, where she couldn’t walk.
“It was tough on me and it was tough at home, but when I came out on the basketball court I let all of that go and I tried to play worry-free. I was angry because she didn’t deserve that; she was a really good person. I used that anger to push me out on the court.”
Jack was in junior high when his mother was diagnosed with inflammatory breast cancer. He and his family, which includes father Jeff Strieker and 20-year-old daughter Alexis, appreciated every moment they had with her.
With what she went through ... she didn’t have to come to any of these games. She was in pain and she went through that pain just so she could watch me come out and play.
“He told mom that he played for her every night — and I really think that’s what’s been getting him fired up and trying to be his best,” said Alexis Strieker, a senior at Southeast Missouri State. “I definitely think basketball has been just a huge help. His teammates have been great and the coaching staff were all awesome with Jack and our family.”
Jack recalled the original diagnosis.
“She just had a small little lump in her breast,” he said. “We thought it was breast cancer, and they said it was treatable. She got through her first few treatments and it went away, but it came back right away after that. It was on and off where she had it three different times, and the last one went to her brain.
“That’s when it started getting pretty bad.”
The last game Alicia Strieker saw her son play was on Feb. 4. It was on Pink-Out Night, a cancer awareness event. It was also at home against Central’s biggest rival, Mater Dei, and Jack’s team-leading 17 points and 15 rebounds were huge in the Cougars’ 49-41 victory.
“That was three days before she passed away,” he said. “I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to be at home cherishing every moment I had left with her, but I played relatively well. I played hard because I knew she wasn’t going to be able to see many more games. I wanted to make sure if my mom saw her last game, I wanted it to be a good one.”
Central senior teammate Kolby Schulte saw a special fire from his closest friend that night.
“That game said it all,” Schulte said. “He played every minute of that game for his mom, and he showed everybody what he was capable of doing. I think basketball right now is his way to get away from it.
“He’s just in the zone. He’s been the biggest factor for us this year with everything he does.”
Alicia Strieker watched with her family from a wheelchair and left before the game ended, but that didn’t matter.
“He really wanted to play well,” Central coach Jeremy Shubert said. “She opened the door right when we were going out, and he gave her a big hug. That really meant a lot to her and then look at the game he had — 17 points and 15 boards. (It was) just a phenomenal game.”
I would always put a smile on my face because I knew that’s what my mom would want me to do. She’d want me to help make people feel important in life, because that’s what she did.
Jack shared a special moment that night not only with his mom, but also with good friend and Mater Dei player Jake Timmermann.
“We hugged and he said he was sorry for what I’ve been going through because he saw my mom there in the wheelchair,” Jack said. “At the visitation he came up to me and hugged me and we both started crying because he loved my mom.”
Shubert realized the significance of the night.
“We took a team picture of both teams prior to the Mater Dei game and Jack’s got that in a frame,” Shubert said. “Everybody signed it. No matter whether you came to support the purple or whether you came to support the blue, it didn’t matter. They all come together for situations like this.”
Everyone feels the loss
Alicia Strieker and husband Jeff Strieker, the superintendent at Breese Elementary School, have long been a big part of the local community in the Breese and Clinton County area.
A former track athlete at Belleville East, Alicia Strieker worked as the southern region director of Manpower, Inc., from 1992 to 2015. She also was active in many clubs and church activities, but always made sure if Jack or Alexis had an athletic event or if Alexis was singing or acting in a play, she would be there.
“I feel that was the main reason she kept fighting, for us,” Jack said. “She could have quit and given up a long time ago. The cancer she had, it was lucky if you lasted a year, and she lasted for 4 1/2 . What really drove her was my sister and myself in our sports and singing competitions. She fought till her very last breath.”
During the last few years, the Strieker family saw how much Alicia Strieker meant to everyone around her. That outpouring of support became even more evident during the visitation when the entire Mater Dei boys basketball team showed up with coach Ron Schadegg.
“I was shocked to see how many different basketball teams sent us flowers,” Jack said. “Freeburg, Carlyle, Teutopolis, Columbia, they all sent us flowers and cards saying how sorry they were for our loss.
“This area is great; everyone cares about each other no matter which teams they play for.”
Growing up in a hurry
Jack had to grow up in a hurry, fitting in school work and sports while spending as much time as he possibly could with his ailing mother and family.
The past month I really thought about maybe I should just step down and be there for my mom, because I didn’t know how much time she’s going to have left. But I knew she wouldn’t want me to do that.
“It was always in the back of my mind, wondering should I be at home right now because I never knew when something could turn for the worse,” he said. “But once I’m on the basketball court, my main focus was basketball. When I was thinking about her, I used that to push me even harder because I knew if she was fighting for her life, I could fight for my team.”
It meant holding some emotions inside.
“It’s tough,” Jack said. “I would always put a smile on my face because I knew that’s what my mom would want me to do. She’d want me to help make people feel important in life, because that’s what she did.”
Like many other Cougars, Schulte spends plenty of time at the Strieker house in Breese before and after practices.
It was always the place to go and Alicia Strieker made sure everyone felt welcome.
“We saw her every day; she really liked having the players around,” said Schulte, who was impressed by the way his friend dealt with his mother’s illness. “He never showed that he was sad or what he was going through.”
Jack said his mother told him to remain happy, stay positive. That wasn’t exactly been an easy thing to do the past 4 1/2 years.
“I’ve seen things that most high schoolers don’t see and that really helped me mature a lot faster than other people,” he said. “I think I can handle certain things and certain situations better.”
Alexis watched her mother undergo chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The cancer eventually spread from her mother’s breast to her lungs and eventually her brain.
“She came to my basketball game four days after having her double mastectomy,” said Alexis, who played volleyball, basketball and soccer at Central. “I was just completely in awe. One of the things mom really enjoyed more than anything was watching us play sports in high school.
“I can only recall one game out of my high school career and Jack’s that she missed. She never left the house without a smile on her face.”
Jack considered taking time off from the team and missing games, but his mother wanted him out there. She wanted to keep watching her son as long as she could.
“The past month I really thought about maybe I should just step down and be there for my mom, because I didn’t know how much time she’s going to have left,” Strieker said. “But I knew she wouldn’t want me to do that. She would never want me to give (that) up, especially to give up on my teammates.
“I did it for her because I knew that’s what she would have wanted.”