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Court connection: Towson High alums boost Notre Dame of Maryland University basketball team

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 enters in his second season as an assistant to head coach Tom Gizzi.

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

In addition, he played that sport on 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 Colonial States Athletic Conference, yet was trending in the right direction while hovering around the .500 mark in early January under Gizzi’s guidance.

Gizzi, a recruiting specialist for Berkshire Associates, is being helped by other staff members and Buchanan, a self-described 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 D-III schools in the area, such as Goucher College, Stevenson University and Johns Hopkins University.

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 exploits on the court go 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 University and other lower-level D 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 full-time 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 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 if 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-hours 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 that she was unsure if she could play at the next level.

“I didn’t know what I was doing,” she said. “I’m tall (a legitimate 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.

“It hasn’t been that difficult,” she said about the adjustment to college ball. “We study game film, and I like that I have a height advantage [over some of her opponents].”

Fitchett said that she stayed overnight with the team last year, so that she was familiar with some of her current teammates before she enrolled in the school in the fall as an education major.

All in all, the amalgam of players and coaches has made for an intriguing season — and one of promise for Fitchett, who played a season-high 29 minutes while scoring 14 points and grabbing four rebounds in a 56-46 win over Centenary University, of Hackettstown, N.J., to up the Gators’ overall record to 8-7 and 4-2 in conference play.

She added two blocks, an assist and a steal while committing five turnovers in the mid-January road contest.

“Daija keeps learning and improving,” Buchanan said after the game. “Today’s outing was a great example of hard work paying dividends.”

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