It’s halftime in Norfolk, Virginia at a Fairlawn Elementary School basketball game, and the crowd roars as Feyonda Fitzgerald and her teammates hit the floor.
As the team sets up and prepares, the crowd cheers as the squad lines up at center court and faces the stands.
Fitzgerald and her team readies to perform – not as basketball players, but cheerleaders.
A young Fitzgerald then spins and waves her pompoms in the usual routine, cheering on the players that she longed to join.
For the Lake Taylor native, cheerleading wasn’t her activity of choice.
“I tried it and I didn’t like it at all,” Fitzgerald said. “So, I went back to basketball and ever since then I’ve been playing my whole life.”
Cheerleading was something her father, Francell Penn, wanted her to try.
The sophomore guard obliged, but always knew her heart was in basketball. Since the first time she picked up a ball at 5 years old, she’d been in love with the game.
Playing for her father’s co-ed recreation league team, Fitzgerald learned what it would take to succeed as a player. For Penn, Fitzgerald was just another player learning the game under his tutelage.
“He was my dad, but on the court he was more of my coach and just trying to help me get better,” Fitzgerald said. “He would push me and if I wasn’t doing things right, he would make me run.”
But this season, Fitzgerald learned another lesson of the game.
For the first time since she was in 10th grade, Fitzgerald would be coming off the bench in a regulation basketball game.
On the night before Temple played Memphis in its American Athletic Conference opener on Dec. 28, the Owls met for their usual pregame film session.
After the players were dismissed following the meeting, coach Tonya Cardoza called Fitzgerald back.
The seventh-year coach felt that Fitzgerald, who averaged nearly 13 points per game last season as an everyday starter, was in a slump and needed some help getting out of it.
“I was thinking about it, trying to do something to snap her out it,” Cardoza said. “She is a great talent, but I think she was overthinking way too much and putting pressure on herself … I just wanted her to take a step back.”
Fitzgerald, who shot more than 33 percent from the field once prior to facing Memphis that weekend, knew she was struggling and needed a change.
“I knew I was better than I was performing … I wasn’t in it,” Fitzgerald said. “I wasn’t focused. I was out of it.”
For Fitzgerald, the new role off the bench has helped her understand the game in a new way for an extended period, as she hasn’t started a game since a Dec. 22, 2013 loss to Villanova.
“Sitting on the bench, it helps me see the game better,” Fitzgerald said. “I can see what is going on before I go in.”
Cardoza has also noticed the effect of Fitzgerald’s new role. Since the Memphis game, Fitzgerald is averaging nearly 13 ppg while shooting 38 percent from the field.
“She gets to sit and watch the game a little more,and now someone is in her ear while she is watching,” Cardoza said. “She is paying attention more to what needs to be done.”
While Cardoza said it does not have to be permanent, she wants Fitzgerald to prove her wrong before she reverses the move.
“I’m sure she wants to be a starter,” Cardoza said. “In practice every day I told her, ‘I don’t want you to be content with this. In practice, you better be busting your butt to show me you deserve to be back in there.’”
Michael Guise can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Michael_Guise