Gen­eral con­nec­tion

Tow­son High alums boost Notre Dame of Mary­land with ‘pipe­line’

Baltimore Sun Sunday - - VARSITY - By Nel­son Cof­fin

On a trip to Tow­son High last win­ter to re­cruit then-se­nior Daija Fitch­ett, Notre Dame of Mary­land Univer­sity as­sis­tant bas­ket­ball coach Mike Buchanan no­ticed a photo of the 1969 boys hoops squad hang­ing on the wall of the ath­letic of­fice.

Buchanan, as he later told Fitch­ett, was in that pic­ture.

“One day in prac­tice I said to her, ‘Daija, do you re­al­ize that we played the same sport on the same court at the same high school 50 years apart?’ ”

Buchanan’s bas­ket­ball jour­ney be­gan as a ju­nior var­sity player at Tow­son in 1968, and Fitch­ett’s ended as mem­ber of the Gen­er­als’ var­sity in 2018, mak­ing it a half-cen­tury full cir­cle from coach to player af­ter Fitch­ett com­mit­ted to Notre Dame of Mary­land.

Fitch­ett has since re­cruited an­other Tow­son High alum and fel­low Notre Dame fresh­man, Maci Lopez, to help the team’s depth, mark­ing a bud­ding THS-NDUM “pipe­line” that in re­al­ity is more co­in­ci­den­tal than con­trived.

Nonethe­less, it’s a con­nec­tion that makes Buchanan, 66, happy as he con­tin­ues on in his sec­ond sea­son as an as­sis­tant to head coach Tom Gizzi.

Gizzi, who has coached at Se­ton Keough and McDonogh in the prep ranks, was also a for­mer pro­fes­sional player in the Arena Foot­ball League for the cham­pion Tampa Bay Storm.

Pre­vi­ously, he played foot­ball for three Ivy League cham­pi­onship teams at the Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia.

Buchanan played two years on Tow­son's var­sity and then played at Wash­ing­ton & Lee Univer­sity be­fore go­ing into sales for 20 years.

Ul­ti­mately, Buchanan could not re­sist the siren call of bas­ket­ball that lured him into an as­sis­tant coach job at then-Villa Julie Col­lege (now Steven­son Univer­sity) for five years.

From there, he spent four years as a bas­ket­ball coach at Notre Dame Prep and 10 years as a mul­ti­ple-sport coach at St. Ti­mothy's School in Steven­son, where his teams cap­tured a pair of In­ter­scholas­tic Ath­letic As­so­ci­a­tion of Mary­land C Con­fer­ence bas­ket­ball cham­pi­onships and one vol­ley­ball ti­tle.

The cur­rent NDMU squad has had its ups and downs this sea­son in the Colo­nialS­tates Ath­letic Con­fer­ence yet was trend­ing in the right di­rec­tion while hov­er­ing at .500 over­all this sea­son un­der Gizzi’s guid­ance.

Gizzi, a re­cruit­ing spe­cial­ist for Berk­shire As­so­ci­ates, is be­ing helped by other staff mem­bers and Buchanan, a self­de­scribed bas­ket­ball junkie who takes on plenty of the side work that keeps a pro­gram vi­brant.

His job as a vol­un­teer as­sis­tant, he said, is to do all the things that make a head coach’s job eas­ier.

Among Buchanan’s re­spon­si­bil­i­ties are re­cruit­ing, scout­ing, prac­tice plan­ning and game plan­ning to com­pete in a con­fer­ence that is com­posed mostly of small lib­eral arts col­leges pri­mar­ily based in eastern Penn­syl­va­nia.

With just over 1,000 un­der­grad­u­ates, Notre Dame is sig­nif­i­cantly smaller than other Divi­sion III schools in the area, such as Goucher, Steven­son and Johns Hop­kins.

And that, in turn, means that ath­letic teams draw from the school’s smaller stu­dent body, which can make things more dif­fi­cult when play­ers are in­jured or leave the team for other rea­sons.

Buchanan’s job is al­ready chal­leng­ing enough.

He also has had to prac­tice bit­ing his tongue when he has the urge to of­fer what might be an un­wanted opin­ion to Gizzi.

“It’s a lit­tle tough af­ter be­ing a head coach for 14 years,” Buchanan said. “We have some dif­fer­ent ideas some­times, and I have to rein my­self in. I know what it means to be a good as­sis­tant coach, and that’s to buy in and to sup­port the head coach in what­ever he or she may want to do.”

He added that be­ing a “yes man,” some­thing he re­fuses to do, would be coun­ter­pro­duc­tive to Gizzi and the Ga­tors.

“It's my job to give him in­for­ma­tion and ideas, even if he may not use it,” he said. “He trusts my judg­ment and knows that any in­put I give is in the hopes of mak­ing us a bet­ter team.”

Both men are ded­i­cated coaches who love bas­ket­ball, al­though the lower lev­els of Divi­sion III women’s bas­ket­ball hardly gen­er­ate much buzz in the sports world at large.

Still, it’s an im­por­tant as­pect of all their lives, even if their suc­cess on the court goes largely un­no­ticed.

While the term “stu­dent-=ath­lete” is of­ten bandied about by col­lege coaches, the term is most ap­pro­pri­ately ap­plied at the Divi­sion III level, where ath­letic schol­ar­ships are nonex­is­tent and aca­demics are a pri­or­ity.

At Notre Dame of Mary­land and other lower-level Divi­sion III schools, prac­tices, work­outs and meet­ings are some­times shifted to fit the stu­dent-ath­lete’s sched­ule rather than the other way around.

For in­stance, when Jus­tice Wal­rath’s in­tern­ship at Lock­heed Martin, an aero­space, de­fense, se­cu­rity and ad­vanced tech­nolo­gies com­pany, turned into a full­time gig at NASA, the se­nior guard and math ma­jor would have been un­able to at­tend weekly prac­tices un­less her coaches and team­mates agreed to change prac­tice times to suit her sched­ule.

“Not enough peo­ple know about what a mean­ing­ful ex­pe­ri­ence a player can have here,” Gizzi said. “And then they can earn a de­gree and go out and do some­thing cool with that. And we’re all about pro­vid­ing that op­por­tu­nity for lo­cal play­ers.”

It’s that kind of at­mos­phere that drew Fitch­ett and Lopez to the school si­t­u­ated on North Charles Street in the city.

Lopez was ac­tu­ally re­cruited to play soft­ball in col­lege, a sport she played for four years at Tow­son.

The 5-foot-4 guard, who did not play bas­ket­ball for the Gen­er­als as a ju­nior or se­nior, was not go­ing to play bas­ket­ball at Notre Dame either un­til a player left the team and the Ga­tors needed to fill out their bench.

Fitch­ett then asked Lopez whether she would con­sider play­ing for the Ga­tors.

Even though Lopez re­al­ized that her play­ing time would be lim­ited, at best, she said that she texted Gizzi about join­ing the team and re­ceived a fa­vor­able re­ply.

She said that she showed up at the next prac­tice and has been with the team ever since, play­ing just a com­bined four min­utes in two of the nine games the Ga­tors have played since her ar­rival.

Know­ing that a 15-to-20-hour time com­mit­ment be­tween games and prac­tices — with eight hours added on for most away games — would be re­quired, Lopez still de­cided to come on board.

“It’s fun,” the An­nes­lie res­i­dent said. “I’m a fresh­man and I wanted to try new things. I want to be more of a well-rounded per­son, and I’ve al­ready made a lot of friends on the team.”

Fitch­ett, on the other hand, had been on Buchanan’s re­cruit­ing radar since he heard that she had al­ready ap­plied to Notre Dame.

Hav­ing only started play­ing bas­ket­ball as a high school fresh­man, Fitch­ett said she was un­sure whether she could play at the next level.

“I didn’t know what I was do­ing,” she said. “I’m tall [at 6 feet], so I thought I would try bas­ket­ball.”

As she im­proved while play­ing for the Gen­er­als, Fitch­ett be­gan to think she could go even fur­ther with the sport.

“I thought that maybe I could go all the way and play in col­lege, too,” she said.

De­spite be­ing ham­pered by Lyme dis­ease, which makes her right an­kle and right knee swell, the fresh­man for­ward is av­er­ag­ing 4.4 points and 6.1 re­bounds per game and has ad­justed well to the col­lege game.

In a re­cent 57-51 win over Cairn Univer­sity, of Langhorne, Pa., Fitch­ett hauled down five re­bounds and scored six points in 18 min­utes of ac­tion. She also added an as­sist and a steal in the vic­tory that cat­a­pulted her team briefly into sec­ond place in the con­fer­ence stand­ings.

STEVE RUARK/BAL­TI­MORE SUN ME­DIA GROUP

Mike Buchanan, cen­ter, an as­sis­tant coach for the Notre Dame of Mary­land and a 1971 grad­u­ate of Tow­son High, stands with Ga­tors fresh­men Daija Fitch­ett, left, and Maci Lopez.

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