The game of basketball runs through the veins of Steve Fitzgerald who has carved his imprint throughout his 31 years of coaching and developing young men.
Now in his 8th year as head coach at Victory Christian Academy, Fitzgerald has helped the Storm basketball program transition into championship contenders with consecutive state final appearances.
Fitzgerald credits his extensive history with the game of hoops going back to days of watching his father coach and the many years coaching in South Florida which have molded his coaching approach.
“God brought me to Lakeland and at the time I didn’t realize why,” Fitzgerald said. “But as I look back after eight years, I can definitely see the opportunity to be in kid’s lives here and the opportunity of changing the program culture. It’s just been a rewarding experience and Lakeland is pretty much home now.”
Those who have been paying attention know Victory Christian Basketball has made plenty of noise on the hoop scene, especially the past two seasons being close to bringing home the hardwood.
The man with the plan recently has been senior FAU commit Lorenzo Cason who has averaged nearly 30.0 points per game over two seasons.
In 31 years of coaching, Fitzgerald has seen it all when it comes to talent on the basketball court but says no other has matched the progression, leadership, and impact Cason has had.
“In his first year when he was a sophomore I told him he was one of the best players I had coached at that point,” Fitzgerald said. “Then last year I said you know what I have to admit you are the best player I’ve ever coached. What really separates him is his combination of skill and athleticism with the mental side that he has.”
Cason has been special and the focal point but you need other guys to step up to be a championship team. VCA has a few talented prospects that deserve recognition in their own right. Senior G Mike Andino is a deadeye specialist who spaces the floor. Senior G/F Jordan Lanier has a college-ready frame and can guard multiple positions with a scoring bag. There are also sophomores (JoJo Scott, Tucker Fox, Thok Gol) and a talented eighth grader (Quinton Wilson) who can provide for the future.
Coach Fitzgerald spoke on the importance of his team synching together on the court and how he’s watched them progress into versatile players.
“For us to get to where we want to go those three guys have to continue to lead us (Cason, Andino, Lanier),” Fitzgerald said. “I’m really excited for the future. The sophomore class in particular has a lot of really good basketball players. I’m excited about those guys who have had to wait their turn a little bit.”
We’ve talked some about the players, but VCA and Coach Fitzgerald have a motivated and passionate coaching staff that works hard to get the team prepared. He spoke on the impact of assistant coaches Nate Morrell and Jackson Fitzgerald have made.
Nate Morrell: About four years ago I got introduced to him, and immediately knew I needed Nate on the staff here. Nate relates to the players really well and knows this area well. He’s also a guy that has been extremely successful with his education and line of work and I think that’s been great for our players to see. He did a lot with basketball but he used basketball to get his degree to be able to enter a profession he really loves and has been impactful with.
Jackson Fitzgerald: Having my own son on the staff is great. He played for me here and in South Florida. He went to actually play at the college I went to and had a great experience there. He decided that coaching was something he wanted to make his career. Once he graduated he got a job this year teaching at the school and one day he will hopefully take over a program.
Drew’s Coach Speech
1. What skills and knowledge do you think are most important for a person who wants to work as a head coach?
I think you really have to have a feel for the game and feel for your players. You have to be able to read a room. It’s not necessarily about the amount of knowledge you have but whether you can translate and communicate that knowledge where the players can receive it and execute it on the court.
2. I know you’re about discipline coach – What are key things and teaching points you like to do in the offseason to prepare your team for the regular season?
We want to put players in situations where they’ll have to do difficult things. We do a lot of workouts early in the morning, 5 or 6 in the morning, and try to get in the weight room. We try to play competition where if we don’t play well we’re probably going to lose. So putting them in situations where you have to face your weaknesses. You can set it up so you can be successful and play certain types of teams. You feel good about yourself until it comes a time you have to win in the playoffs and everything comes unraveled. So, you want to prepare yourself in the off-season to the point when you get to those playoff games the kids aren’t shocked. I think that’s what we really build our off-season program around.
3. What do you hope to achieve throughout your coaching tenure whether that’s continuing to aspire to young men and impacting your community?
I think the goal hasn’t really changed. Obviously, you want to win at a high level. As a competitor, you’re always trying to achieve a certain amount of success on the court. But more importantly, for those that haven’t had that ambition to go to the next level, I think in high school you have a tremendous impact on the lives of the student-athletes because of the age you get them. Especially with me being in private school most of my career you get these kids a lot of the time in middle school and you get the chance to impact their lives over 5-6 years. And then to continue that relationship once they leave high school and go to college to become adults and parents. I think that’s really what’s driven me to continue coaching high school.
4. What’s new about coaching and recruiting from when you played and first started out coaching?
There is obviously more with COVID happening, kids getting extra years, and the transfer portal has been huge. Colleges can go find an experienced kid who’s already proven they can be productive at the college level. So, I think that’s different but from a basketball standpoint the recruiting process has always been extremely competitive because there are so few spots. Helping kids understand what really is going to help them get recruited and what colleges are really looking for. Even at the low level of D3, the top teams there are very good and just any average high school player isn’t going to be able to compete at that level if they don’t have a true understanding of what it takes. I think that part of a high school coach’s job is to be a truth-teller.
5. What traits and skills make a successful basketball player in your opinion?
I always tell our guys when talent meets talent what separates it? Really it’s character when it comes down to it. Character is when things go poorly how are you going to react? Everybody performs pretty well when you got things going but college coaches are getting hired and fired based on their winning and losing so they need players who are going to impact winning on a multitude of levels. They need guys they can trust when things go poorly they aren’t going to just implode or start blaming other people. They need people who are going to stand tough and find ways to impact the game. I think those are some of the characteristics that separate kids that make it and thrive in college.
As noted, VCA has had consecutive state championship appearances under the leadership of Coach Fitzgerald but has not been able to take down the big one in Orlando Christian Prep.
When asked about the goal for this season, Coach said getting through a battle-tested schedule will have his team prepared for what comes in the end.
“I think the scheduling this year on purpose we took it up another level so that when you get there you are used to playing teams who are as good as or better than OCP so when we play them we can be prepared as we possibly can be. The other thing would be with the system now with Max Preps and FHSAA with strengths of schedule and all that, our goal for us is to get that game at home.”
A well-spoken man with the right confidence and humbleness to lead a program. He wrapped up his interview with thanks to his wife and others who have helped him along the way.