Coaches, especially those in the first year at a place, are fond of thinking of their teams as programs that have to be built from the ground up. So, it made complete sense the other day when Randallstown girls basketball coach Ellen Fitzkee used a little construction language to implore the Rams to try just a little harder on defense.
"Come on," Fitzkee said. "You've got to give me some tools for my tool box."
It wasn't so long ago that Fitzkee thought she had put her coaching tools away, maybe for good. But after turning down the Randallstown position last season when it was offered, Fitzkee, the former women's coach at Towson University, dusted off the hammer and saw and has quietly assembled one of Baltimore County's best early-season stories.
"It's been a good fit," Fitzkee said. "That's part of the fun of it, teaching the fundamentals of the game. We have players who have a lot of talent and a lot of athleticism. It's a matter of working with them and getting them the discipline to do things that are going to help them come game time. It's nice. It's almost like a blank page and I get to paint it."
And the team (7-3) is soaking it all in.
"This year, we have a good coach and a strong team. We can do a lot of things," sophomore point guard Kelsie Singleton said. "I like how she [Fitzkee] is not all about 'win, win, win.' She takes her time, and she just wants us to improve. It's not all about the win. It's about the improvement of the whole team together."
Towson declined to renew Fitzkee's contract in March 2001, after 13 seasons when she went 145-214 and won Coach of the Year honors twice, in 1995 in the Big South and in 1998 in America East.
After Towson went in the proverbial new direction, Fitzkee didn't coach for five years, but she couldn't stay away from the sport that had been so central to her life since she was 8 years old.
Fitzkee got into teaching, but kept her hand in basketball by officiating high school and college games. Though she has given up high school refereeing this season, she still does occasional college games.
"It [officiating] is different, and I get a lot of - what's the word? - muck from officials, because almost everybody I work with has officiated my games," Fitzkee said, laughing. "The only thing that's good about it is I got two technicals in 22 years of coaching, so I have a pretty good rapport with most of my colleagues at that level. Thank goodness for that."
When Fitzkee arrived at Randallstown last school year as the chair of the guidance department, she was asked to take over the Rams' program. Fitzkee said she declined because of the considerable responsibilities of her new position.
But after the Rams limped to a 7-8 mark last season, Fitzkee was approached again, and this time she agreed, albeit with the recognition that this is not a permanent move, as "high school coaching is for the young."
True, high school basketball is dramatically different, Fitzkee said, than when she coached it in the early 1980s. It's harder now, Fitzkee said, to teach fundamentals because today's players can get the job done with their strength and speed without necessarily learning the proper way.
And Fitzkee said she has had to tamp down her expectations of the players, as more of them play for social reasons than to get scholarships.
"I've had to change my focus a little bit," Fitzkee said. "I can't develop every kid into a Division I athlete. I would like to, but that's not everybody's goal and not everybody has those capabilities.
"The other thing is when you see potential in kids and they can't see it in themselves. It will be interesting."
This season, there hasn't been a Michael Corleone moment for Fitzkee, a time where she lamented that just when she had gotten out of coaching, the game somehow managed to pull her back in.
That's because the Rams are homing in on her message, especially defensively, where they have given up more than 45 points only twice.
"Coach Fitzkee has a different kind of coaching style coming from college," said forward Courtney Mims, one of four seniors on the team. "It's a lot of stop and go with, 'OK, this is a teaching point,' and a lot of repetition and going over the same plays and making sure we've got it down pat."
The Rams dropped a close decision two weeks ago to perennial power Milford Mill and face a huge test a week from Friday at New Town, but with a new coach who is building things slowly, they may soon need to clear a space on the school's gym wall alongside the state championship banners the boys have won.
"When is [a championship] going to happen? I don't know," Fitzkee said. "But if we keep getting better, we're not that far off, if we keep doing the same things consistently night in and night out. And that's where championships are born."