‘Growing pains’ for girls hoops at Fitzgerald bridged gap for success

By: Jonathan Szczepaniak | Warren Weekly | Published January 20, 2023

 Fitzgerald sophomore CaSaundra Smith attempts a jump shot.

Fitzgerald sophomore CaSaundra Smith attempts a jump shot.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 Fitzgerald sophomore Kaylynn Millander grabs a rebound during a game against Warren Woods-Tower on Jan. 13.

Fitzgerald sophomore Kaylynn Millander grabs a rebound during a game against Warren Woods-Tower on Jan. 13.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


WARREN — There are obstacles each team has to overcome, whether it’s injuries, senior graduates, or a losing skid, and then there’s back-to-back one-win seasons.

Fitzgerald girls basketball picked up a win to start its 2022 season off on the right path, but 16 straight losses brought the team back to a feeling the program has been ever so familiar with in recent years.

From a personnel perspective, it was difficult from the beginning for Fitzgerald as the majority of their roster consisted of freshmen.

“We just had to learn how to play basketball last season,” Fitzgerald coach JuWan Shakespear said. “It was the definition of growing pains.”

Now anchored by senior leaders Arkija Smith and Alliyah Harris, the veterans and a slew of sophomore talent have launched Fitzgerald to a 13-0 start to the season. Fitzgerald is on pace to have their best season since 2014-2015 when they finished 15-7 and second in the MAC Blue.

“They took it upon themselves to say, ‘We don’t want to feel this way anymore,’” Shakespear said. “They spent the summer in the weight room and had a team camp in Northwood University where the girls sat down and wrote down their goals. It’s been night and day.”

Fitzgerald’s late-July trip to Northwood University for a basketball camp seemed to make a bigger impact than anyone could have expected, so much so that Harris said the team’s success this year can trace back to their experience at Northwood.

“I feel like our team bonding pushed us to be better,” Harris said. “At Northwood, we were able to learn each other’s personalities off the court so we can show them better on the court.”

Now working as one unit on the floor, Shakespear said he notices a change in the team’s chemistry this season,

“They got their little group chats and all the inside jokes,” Shakespear said. “It’s inspiring to see how much teenagers stick together. They ride together.”

Harris’ ability to command the second unit while Smith anchors the starting five has paid dividends for undefeated Fitzgerald this season. Both senior leaders in their own right, Shakespear said the presence they bring on and off the court has been a key factor for the team.

“We play a lot of sophomores on the floor, so they’re excited and anxious on the floor,” Shakespear said. “Everything is speed, speed, speed. Arkija (Smith) and Alliyah (Harris) tell the girls, ‘Hey, calm down.’ They control the emotions of the game.”

It’s a lot to ask for two seniors outnumbered in comparison to the sophomore class, but the team has responded both on and off the court.

Smith said she had her concerns at first when stepping into the leadership position.

“I’m not going to lie, I was kind of scared,” Smith said. “Since they’re so young, I wasn’t sure how they were going to react to our leadership, but they were great.”

Junior Janiya McWilliams, and sophomores Kaylynn Millander, Asia Bowman, and CaSaundra Smith have emerged as contributors for Fitzgerald this year.

Shakespear said McWilliams has been a key component this season.

“Her being able to show how talented she is has made a ton of difference,” Shakespear said.

Fitzgerald has dominated on both ends of the court in large part due to their team speed and physicality, averaging 52 points per game and allowing only 25 points per game defensively.

Harris said that the team feels they have a lot to show this year.

“It is kind of surreal, but I always knew our team had potential,” Harris said. “We had to prove to the league after dropping us in a division that we still got it.”

The season has been like a revenge tour for Fitzgerald after dropping from the Macomb Area Conference’s Gold division to the MAC Silver.

While in a different division this season, Fitzgerald has competed against multiple teams they lost to last year. Not only have they beat them, but Harris said they’ve made a statement.

“I feel like every game we had was a revenge game,” Harris said. “They kept looking down on us, so when we beat them by 20-plus points now, they know we can’t be taken lightly.”

While sporting a new look in the win column, and currently first in the MAC Silver, Fitzgerald remembers their history.

With three games left for the year before the playoffs, Fitzgerald will have to remain grounded regardless of their success entering tournament play.

“I feel like we still stay grounded,” Harris said. “Even though we had a bad year last year, we don’t let it get to our head. We learned as fast as it can happen, it can be taken away from us.”