Warren Fitzgerald senior Janiya McWilliams, right, and junior Kaylynn Millander, left, square off during a team practice on Jan. 4 at Fitzgerald High School.

Warren Fitzgerald senior Janiya McWilliams, right, and junior Kaylynn Millander, left, square off during a team practice on Jan. 4 at Fitzgerald High School.

Photo by Erin Sanchez

Fitzgerald girls basketball eye back-to-back league titles

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Warren Weekly | Published January 5, 2024

 Warren Fitzgerald head coach JuWan Shakespear instructs the girls during a team practice.

Warren Fitzgerald head coach JuWan Shakespear instructs the girls during a team practice.

Photo by Erin Sanchez


WARREN — The part of sports movies most people tend to love is the underdog mentality of the teams. The team that wasn’t supposed to be there overcame every obstacle and shred of adversity to find their way to success.

Warren Fitzgerald girls basketball exemplified that type of feeling last year when a squad that won only two games from 2020 to 2022 rattled off a perfect regular season record en route to a 23-1 record, winning a Macomb Area Conference Silver league title and suffering their only loss to Warren’s Regina High School in the regional championship game.

Fitzgerald’s 5-1 record this season is not only showing that last season wasn’t a fluke but is also letting the rest of Division 2 girls basketball know they’ll be a threat in the region, if not beyond, again this season.

“They’ve come in this year without forgetting that game (Regina),” Fitzgerald coach JuWan Shakespear said. “The first practice of the year, the energy was high and the emotions were high already. Every practice was like they didn’t want to experience that again. It’s just been a motivation for us.”

Fitzgerald’s rise to the hierarchy of Division 2 girls basketball can be traced back to two 2023 senior graduates — Alliyah Harris and Ar’kija Smith.

Harris and Smith, along with Shakespear, built the culture from the ground up as the lone seniors on a team filled with underclassmen.

Instead of shying away from the mentor role, Harris and Smith embraced their position as veteran leaders, and Fitzgerald’s improvement grew exponentially because of it.

Even with Harris and Smith gone this season, Shakespear said they’ve left a lasting impact on the team.

“They were such no-nonsense, young ladies that even with them leaving, I still feel that presence when they (the team) come to practice,” Shakespear said. “Now, the girls echo the things they used to say. They left a real, no-nonsense vibe, and it’s carried over really well.”

Needing someone to step up as a leader, senior guard Janiya McWilliams, an all-state honoree last season, has picked up right where the departing seniors left off as Fitzgerald’s cornerstone player both on and off the court.

McWilliams’ athletic ability showcased itself last season when she burst onto the scene for the Spartans, displaying a mix of speed and physicality on both ends of the court, but her arsenal has only improved as her game has reached another level this season.

“Watching Janiya’s growth from her freshman year to now has just been a sight,” Shakespear said. “She’s turned into the movement of the team. The way Janiya goes is the way we go. The rest of the underclassmen with the juniors and sophomores all follow everything she does.”

The vocal part of being a leader can be an adjustment, but McWilliams said being able to relate to the younger players has made it a smooth transition for her.

“It’s actually kind of fun,” McWilliams said. “It’s like, ‘Hey, I was just like that one day.’ It’s really fun watching them grow.”

The focus for the Spartans junior class in the offseason was elevating their game in the new season, and every player has answered the call for Shakespear’s squad.

Juniors Kaylynn Millander, Asia Bowman, Casaundra Smith, Lyric Pannell, Amani Thomas, and Desiree Haygood have come into their own this season.

Millander, Smith, and Bowman have continued to improve after being key impact players for Fitzgerald during its regional run last season while Fitzgerald has leaned on Pannell on the defensive end.

Fitzgerald needed all the help it could get defensively following two of its core defensive anchors graduating, and Pannell’s defensive ability along with McWilliams at the guard position has strengthened the Spartans.

Every junior is making an impact, and Shakespear said their confidence growth is the cause.

“They (the juniors) don’t panic as much,” Shakespear said. “Last year if it was a close game or things weren’t going well, the two seniors had to calm things down and snap them back into shape. Now with that year and having those two seniors, they don’t panic now. They’re the ones that are like, ‘Hey, we’re good.’”

Fitzgerald opened this season 5-0 before suffering their first loss to a tough South Lyon East team, which is currently tied for first in the Lakes Valley Conference.

It’s a minor roadblock as opposed to the perfect regular season the Spartans put together last year, but it’s one the team may have needed before the bulk of the league schedule opens up.

Fitzgerald faced MAC Gold and Blue teams to open the season, going 3-0 with wins over L’Anse Creuse, Roseville, and St. Clair, but Fitzgerald will open up league play on Jan. 5 when the team travels to Sterling Heights High School.

The Spartans held a perfect 10-0 record in the MAC Silver last year and will look to earn back-to-back league championships for the first time since 2008-2009.

There’s a lot of excitement surrounding the girls basketball team because of what Shakespear and his squad have built the last two seasons, and the support is only growing stronger as the season goes on.

Fitzgerald is making noise, and McWilliams said the school is taking notice.

“We love to see all the teachers come up to us and say how much we’ve changed the school and how proud they are of us,” McWilliams said. “We definitely love that.”