Liberty Bell grad Lauren Fitzmaurice earns a spot on Syracuse U. women’s basketball team
By Don Nelson
Hard work, determination and confidence — traits Lauren Fitzmaurice displayed as a four-year standout for the Liberty Bell High School girls’ basketball team — have paid off in her freshman year at Syracuse University.
Fitzmaurice, a 2017 Liberty Bell graduate, has earned a position on the women’s basketball team roster at Syracuse, a highly regarded Division I program whose sports teams are known as the Orange.
Fitzmaurice played her way onto the Orange squad, but the more-familiar terminology is “walk-on,” since she wasn’t recruited to play for Syracuse. Walk-ons don’t get an athletic scholarship but have the opportunity to possibly earn one. Fitzmaurice said most of her expenses are covered by academic scholarships at Syracuse, a private school with an enrollment of more than 22,000 students.
Fitzmaurice joins a competitive, high-profile program. Under women’s head coach Quentin Hillsman, the Orange have made it to post-season play for 10 consecutive years, including a trip to the finals in the 2015-16 season. Syracuse, which plays in the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference, had a 2017-18 season record of 14-4 through this week.
Coach Hillsman has built a consistently successful, nationally recognized program that attracts top-rated talent. According to the Syracuse athletic department’s website, “Ten of the past 11 recruiting classes have been touted as top-25 classes nationally by the Dan Olson Collegiate Girls Basketball Report. In addition, the school’s first four McDonald’s All-Americans have all been recruited and played under Hillsman.”
Fitzmaurice was one of nine high school girls in Washington state nominated for the McDonald’s All-American team last year, which may have had some influence on the Syracuse coaching staff’s willingness to consider her. But that wouldn’t have mattered had she not proved herself in other ways.
Since she was accepted at Syracuse during her senior year at Liberty Bell, Fitzmaurice made it a goal to at least give herself a shot at making the Orange squad as a walk-on — and she devoted herself to a rigorous six-day-a-week program toward that end last summer.
After graduation last June, Fitzmaurice talked to Connor Walsh — a Liberty Bell graduate who played college basketball at Willamette University in Oregon and is now general manager of the Winthrop Rink — about her goal of competing for a walk-on position. Walsh helped her develop a regimen that included three days a week of weightlifting, two days of conditioning, three days of shooting (250 shots per session), and open gym time with an emphasis on basketball skills such as dribbling, passing and one-on-one play. The sessions overlapped on some days, he noted.
“I had to get in the best shape of my life,” Fitzmaurice said.
“One of the biggest things I took away [from a college-level basketball program] was the amount of work you have to put into it,” Walsh said. “I passed that along to Lauren. I kept harping … that her workouts and effort had to be above and beyond what she’d ever done in high school.”
Additionally, Fitzmaurice spent time on the courts playing against the toughest competition she could find. Usually, that meant playing with the men who showed up — most of them former Liberty Bell classmates looking for a good pick-up game.
Walsh said he drew on his college playing experience to come up with a productive workout schedule for Fitzmaurice. “And I did quite a bit of research online to see what other college women’s programs are doing,” he said.
“She originally came to me in the spring of her junior year,” Walsh said. “She felt she was missing something by not doing the extra work. It’s impressive for a high school student to want to put in the extra time.”
“She stuck with it,” he added. “It was pretty evident that she was doing work on her own time.”
Fitzmaurice piled up a ton of accolades and 1,264 points in her Liberty Bell basketball career. She excelled in other sports as well, notably track, soccer and volleyball.
From the moment she arrived at Syracuse last August, Fitzmaurice said, she played basketball nearly every day while continuing the workouts Walsh designed for her.
“I was the only girl going to the gym,” she said of the pick-up games she found at Syracuse. With the men, she said, “you have to establish that you’re a good player” or you can’t stick around. “I had to build a reputation,” she said. “And, it helped me make a ton of friends.”
Ultimately, she said, “they supported me” and encouraged her to keep playing.
She also tried out for and played on a women’s club team for Syracuse, competing against club teams from other schools. “All of them [her teammates] would be the most valuable player in our [high school] league,” Fitzmaurice said. “They were all the best on their high school team.”
Fitzmaurice relished the challenge. “Being able to play at a high level all the time has made me so much better,” she said.
Meanwhile, she was in preliminary contact with the Syracuse coaching staff. “I wanted them to know I was interested,” she said. “I wanted to be in the back of their minds.”
“I told them that I was a real hard worker and would like to show them what I can do,” Fitzmaurice added.
Fitzmaurice’s polite persistence paid off. Eventually, she was asked to fill out some necessary paperwork required of potential players, and had personal interviews with members of the coaching staff. “That’s a very important part of it,” she said.
The audition included a 45-minute workout with assistant coach Tammi Reiss, a former All American college player and WNBA veteran, after an Orange practice. “I got positive feedback,” Fitzmaurice said. That led to an invitation to walk on — with all the potential and uncertainties that go with it. Syracuse already has 17 women on its roster, including three red-shirt players and only two seniors. So far this season, 13 players have appeared in Syracuse games.
Fitzmaurice was told she needed to start on an aggressive strength and condition program to catch up with the rest of the Orange team, and she cut her recent Methow Valley holiday visit short so she could return to Syracuse and get started. While she was back in the valley, Fitzmaurice didn’t let up on the court. She worked out with the Liberty Bell team at the Lady Lions’ practices, which was both fun and illuminating. “I didn’t realize how much better I’d gotten,” she said.
If anything, Fitzmaurice has ramped up her work ethic since being invited to join the Orange.
“I have a lot of catching up to do, but I’m a fast learner, I’m athletic and I’m hard-working,” Fitzmaurice said. “I want to keep impressing them [the Syracuse coaches], proving I can play at a higher level.”
Fitzmaurice said she has been following the Syracuse women’s team avidly this season, familiarizing herself with the players and strategies. At 5 feet 8 inches, Fitzmaurice will likely play at a guard position.
Fitzmaurice won’t play for the Orange until next season, when she could be classified as a red-shirt freshman. She will continue working on basketball through the summer at Syracuse, she said, with only a short break to return home. She grew up in Mazama with her parents, Peter Fitzmaurice and Shannon Skibeness.
Fitzmaurice also finds time for studying. She is majoring in communications. Fitzmaurice, who said she wanted to attend an out-of-state university, says Syracuse was the ideal choice for her and “I like everything about it.”
Fitzmaurice said she envisions herself in Syracuse orange on the basketball court. “I want them to see that I play well, and play well with them,” she said. “I want them to want to play with me.”
That may sound boastful unless you know Fitzmaurice, who is driven by lofty goals and willing to do what it takes to reach them.
Ed Smith, head coach of the Liberty Bell girls’ basketball team, had high praise for Fitzmaurice. Before moving to the Methow Valley, Smith was head coach of the boys’ basketball team at Kent-Meridian High School, and has worked with many excellent players over the years.
“She brings to the table the greatest work ethic of any athlete I have coached,” Smith said of Fitzmaurice. “My wife and I spent more hours than you can imagine going to the gym because she wanted to work on her game.”
“Basketball players are not born, they are made through hard work and much repetition,” Smith added. “I don’t want anyone to think that it was anything magical that I did to get Lauren where she is today. It was her determination and dedication. I just provided the keys to the gym and the encouragement which is provided to any self-motivated athlete. She made me a better coach, and for that, I’ll always love her.”
Fitzmaurice said that Smith “encouraged me to go for it all the time.” Through her years in the Methow Valley, starting as early as third grade, several other local coaches — notably Ash Court, Deed Fink and John Caesar — also contributed to her development along the way.
“I think it’s incredible,” Connor Walsh said of Fitzmaurice’s effort to play for Syracuse. “It just shows the determination and work she put in … she had to do it all on her own, and then impress them.”