TEMPE – One challenge of taking over a Division I program as a new coach is constructing and learning a new roster. That was particularly true for Taryn VanThof, the first-year coach of the Arizona State women’s lacrosse team.
The Sun Devils, whose season just ended with a loss to No. 1 seed USC in the Pac-12 tournament, features two sets of twins: Canadians Bella and Gigi Gaspar from Burnaby, B.C., and McKenna and Maddie Riley from Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
All have contributed to the team in different ways, with defender Bella capping her season by landing on the Pac-12 All-Tournament Team. Gigi started all 19 games and finished second on the team with 27 ground balls.
The Rileys had a different experience this season. Many have chronicled the unique connections that twins experience, but these sisters took it to an unexpected place.
Early in the 2023 season, Maddie tore her ACL and meniscus, which required surgery.
“Honestly, I was making fun of her and joking to get off the couch,” McKenna said.
Maddie mused that McKenna “would not do anything for me. She would always tell me to fix it myself. McKenna did help me a little bit and our mom came into town.”
Meanwhile, McKenna started to hit her stride on the field until a scrimmage a few days later led to the same situation.
“It was weird because when Maddie tore her ACL I had a feeling I was going to tear mine.” McKenna said. “Then it happens and I jinxed myself. At that point it was God’s plan.”
In a stretch of a few days, Maddie tore her right ACL and McKenna tore her left. They even tore their ACL in the exact same place, causing doctors and trainers to triple check they had the images for the right twin. This even confused their doctor, who made initial markings for surgery on the wrong leg of Maddie thinking it was McKenna.
The twins are both a month into rehab and the family bond has helped them through their struggles. Despite their competitive nature, it did not take long for the older brothers to call and talk with Maddie and McKenna to show their support.
“Our parents raised amazing kids and made all of us competitive while raising us with tough love,” Maddie said. “That gave us a lot of respect for each other when we saw hard times and situations. We always have each other’s back.”
The Riley twins agree that physical therapy “sucks” but also that twin power has helped them through the challenging process.
In their short season, McKenna played five games, scored three goals and had two assists. Maddie played in one game.
Meanwhile, Bella and Gigi Gaspar had more opportunities to spend time on the field together, something they enjoyed since they have been nearly inseparable since birth.
“To be honest, it’s the best thing ever. I couldn’t imagine not having a twin,” Bella said. “It is a built-in best friend, and we do everything together since we were born.”
Growing up, the two played multiple sports: basketball, soccer, volleyball, lacrosse and box lacrosse (indoor lacrosse). They found success in sports at an early age and continued through high school, leading their soccer team to the 2019 B.C. Provincial AA High School Soccer Championship title, and co-captaining the Team B.C. lacrosse team that placed second and the U19 Canadian National Tournament.
Bella and Gigi spent their entire athletic careers by each other’s side, except for one year.
“In Canada, we play box lacrosse which is boy’s lacrosse with full contact in a hockey arena with cement,” Bella said. “A lot of guy friends we knew played but they would always come back with concussions or other injuries. We played hockey at the time and my coach said we should get into box lacrosse.”
Gigi added, “The first year I let Bella play to see if she would get a concussion. When she didn’t, I hopped on the train with Bella and from then on, we played on every team together and the same position. We were recruited as midfielders for college, and both switched to defense. We’ve done everything together and our ability is pretty much identical.”
Although lacrosse was the sport both wanted to play in college, one thing was made clear about plans after high school: The twins are a package deal. Finding a college that offered both Bella and Gigi a spot on the team was only the beginning of the complications that came with the recruiting process.
“We were deciding whether we wanted to play basketball or lacrosse in college, making the recruiting process a little more time-consuming because it took us a while to decide,” Bella said. “We went into senior year uncommitted and then our club program ended so we came down to an ASU camp and talked with the previous coaches.
“It all just worked out. It was honestly God’s plan because we played for six hours at the camp and got offered the next week. The week after that was signing day so the entire process was very fast and definitely unique.”
Gig added, “I feel like coming from Canada is a lot harder. It’s super cool we have a few Canadians on our team, and we are all from the same club team, so we all have the same connection.
“It was difficult, but we are super blessed that our parents were willing to fly us out and give us the opportunity to put ourselves in front of coaches and get to play here. It is something that not a lot of people up there (Canada) get to do.”
Coming to ASU has only brought the Gaspar twins closer, experiencing a completely new environment together. The bond especially grew during the COVID-19 pandemic because of Canada’s border lockdown, which did not allow their parents to visit. The twins had each other and Facetime with their family, while they watched families of teammates come to Tempe to visit loved ones.
Bella and Gigi don’t claim to have twin superpowers, but they do share a special connection.
“Bella and I won’t have to say anything, and we know what the other’s thinking, maybe not word-forward but we have experienced everything in our life together, so we react the same to pretty much everything,” Gigi said. “I don’t feel (Bella’s) pain or anything like that, but I know when she’s actually hurt, has an issue going on, or if anything is going on.
“We can read each other like a book, and we say things at the same time a lot.”
Bella believes there are times when she feels a “sixth sense” on and off the field that may or may not be related to how close she is with her twin. But it is not, she said, mind-reading or twin telepathy.
Their bond can be seen on the field by the way they speak their own language to one another. The only difference between the on-field and off-field relationship? Goofiness. During the game, the two said they are locked in and focused. Once the final horn sounds, they return to their light-hearted personalties.
An advantage of playing the same position with someone you know inside an out: an awareness of the other’s strengths and weaknesses that helps determine where the other will be. Bella described a play that occurred in a game this season when Gigi kicked the ball to her without looking or talking because she knew Bella would be there. That nonverbal communication is part of the reason for the success the twins have found playing defense next to each other.
This is the first time the Gaspars have played on a team with another set of identical twins.
Unlike Gigi and Bella, the Riley twins grew up with three older brothers, including a set of twins, who contributed to their competitive nature.
“We would get into lots of fights with our brothers and (it was) very competitive,” McKenna said.
Maddie added, “Everything was always a competition. Twins talk about how they are best friends, but we are always trying to beat each other or be better at everything we did.”
The Riley’s competed in soccer, field hockey, cross country and track growing up but always had a more passionate love for lacrosse,in part because of the older brothers.
“I remember I got a stick from a garage sale and it was so flat,” McKenna said. “If I didn’t catch it, I had to work out, and I loved it because I got to hang out with my older brothers.”
The Riley twins had no intention of playing at the same college or being in Arizona. Coming from Colorado, they describe themselves as mountain girls that did not like the heat. However, the previous coaching staff convinced the twins to stay together at ASU.
Another reason for initially thinking they would play at different colleges is due to the two playing different positions. Maddie is a midfielder thanks to her love of running, and McKenna is an attacker for a simple reason.
“I just like scoring and I love the pressure as well as the adrenaline rush of scoring goals,” McKenna said.
The Riley sisters don’t share quite the same bond on and off the field as the Gaspars. They can read each other on the field, but off the field, the two think very differently.
“I feel like the twin connection is not real and our brains are very different,” McKenna said. “I’m super logical and Maddie is more emotionalized, not in a bad way. The both of us just think differently about certain things.”
Whether it’s their similarities or differences, two sets of twins is a dynamic the ASU women’s lacrosse team welcomes.