Journey to remember for USF Bulls’ Fitzpatrick
TAMPA - He arrived as a 19-year-old kid, skinny, unsure of himself, somewhat overwhelmed by the transition to Big East Conference basketball and college academics. He leaves as a 23-year-old man, with a rock-solid frame and a dangerous inside-out game. He was a leader on two postseason teams. And in two months, he will march across the Sun Dome stage to receive his communications degree. In 2009, Toarlyn Fitzpatrick took a short route to the University of South Florida – it’s about 10 minutes, tops, from King High School to USF’s campus – but his career became a memorable journey. “I’m trying not to think of it ending because it all went by so fast,’’ said Fitzpatrick, who plays his final Sun Dome game tonight when the Bulls (11-17, 2-14 Big East) face the Connecticut Huskies (19-9, 9-7). “When the last game is over, it might hit me all at once. Until then, I’m approaching them all the same because I want to win.’’“No matter what Toarlyn does the rest of the way,’’ USF coach Stan Heath said, “he will have a great USF legacy.’’ Fitzpatrick, a 6-foot-8, 245-pound forward who averages 10.4 points and 5.2 rebounds, has played more games (129) than anyone in Bulls program history. He’s seventh all-time in blocked shots (109), ninth in 3-pointers (108) and is nine rebounds short of cracking the top 10 in that category. He needs 48 points to reach a career 900. Mostly, Heath will remember the things that can’t be quantified. “I see a guy who is great in the community, a wonderful representative and ambassador of our program, and a guy who loves USF and Tampa with all his heart,’’ Heath said. “I think he put a lot of pressure on himself to lead our team and the season hasn’t turned out like he wanted. But you’ve got to look beyond the wins and losses for his impact. He has made a huge impression on all of our young players and recruits. That will carry on.’’ Junior swingman Victor Rudd remembers last season, the day after USF lost against Ohio University at the NCAA tournament, when the Bulls nearly reached the Sweet 16. “He was in the gym working out, setting the example,’’ Rudd said. “We noticed.’’ Freshman forward Zach LeDay remembers how Fitzpatrick gravitated toward him, making sure the young player felt included, answering all his questions. “He has nurtured me,’’ LeDay said. “He’s like a big brother. When I think about USF basketball, I’m going to think about him.’’ How far has Fitzpatrick come? He was superb at King. In fact, he was The Tampa Tribune’s Hillsborough County player of the year in a season that featured Sickles center John Henson, a future NBA lottery pick. He originally signed with Georgia Southern, but was released from that commitment due to a coaching change, then landed at USF. Heath still wasn’t a big believer. When conditioning began, and Fitzpatrick could barely finish his sprints, the skepticism grew. “I had to change my body and my approach,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “If you don’t work in the offseason, you don’t get results. I made up my mind to work and become a Big East-type player. “Going from high school to the Big East, it’s almost shocking. You’re not the biggest, fastest, strongest player any more. Once you improve, the game starts slowing down.’’ Fitzpatrick expected so much more from this season. He dreamed of playing his final game at the NCAA tournament. “Once we started taking multiple losses in the Big East, I got really down about it all,’’ Fitzpatrick said. “The coaches pulled me aside and told me to stop putting so much stress on myself. “Sometimes, it doesn’t go the way you expect. I’m proud that we haven’t quit. You’ve got to hang in there because we still have games remaining. You always want to finish strong.’’ It’s all part of the journey. Fitzpatrick didn’t leave his hometown for college basketball, but he still came a long way.