Photo courtesy of Dave’s Joint.
By David Cordova
Whenever Luke Fizulich steps on the court, he knows that he’s in for a hard-fought effort. He is very competitive and will do everything he needs to for his team to win the game.
The 6-foot-3 senior guard has made plenty of clutch plays for the Archbishop Stepinac Crusaders the last couple of years and has been nothing but a consummate teammate since day one. And because of that, he’s going to greater heights and will be on a Division I roster next season.
“What motivates me? I really love basketball,” said Fizulich, “I love getting better, I love kind of everything that goes along with playing basketball, just working out lifting weights, jumping ropes, I love all of that stuff. I think, obviously, there’s other stuff that motivates me, but the real motivation is loving basketball and really, getting better, and that’s why I’ve kind of, been able to get to the level I’ve gotten to.”
A native of Harrington Park, New Jersey, which is in Bergen County, Fizulich is part of an area where players are tough and scrappy, just like the players in the New York City scene or throughout the entire state of New Jersey.
“There’s a lot of good players that come out of this area that play in this area,” he said of being from Bergen County, “A lot of good Catholic schools – St. Joe’s [Montvale], Bergen Catholic, Don Bosco [Prep], obviously, everybody knows Lenny Cooke went to Old Tappan. So everybody knows that this is a big basketball area, a lot of people play, a lot of people know about the games, so it’s a good basketball environment to grow up in.”
On the strengths and weaknesses in his game, he replied, “So I would say, the strengths in my game are being able to defend the best player on the other team, I take a lot of pride in that, something I’ve gotten better at over the past year, or so. I wasn’t able to do that as a freshman or sophomore in high school, but playing in this league, [the CHSAA], it got me better, and I feel like I excel in that area of my game. I would also say shooting the ball, getting a lot of shots up, really worked at that, like a lot of people do. Just doing the little things, like coming around screens, working on that stuff, just getting shots that’s allowed me to be successful in shooting the basketball, I would say that’s my strengths.”
Fizulich first started out at Bergen Catholic High School in Oradell, New Jersey, which is known for being a powerhouse in sports like basketball and football. It was also a school where a couple of his family members attended. But then unfortunately, it ended up not being a good fit for him.
“When I got there, there were some guys ahead of me who were good players, so it just wasn’t the right fit,” said Fizulich. “They were kind of like a year or two older than me, so, nothing against Bergen Catholic, my brother goes there, he loves it, but it just didn’t work out.”
As a sophomore, he went to Old Tappan High School in Old Tappan, New Jersey, where he was a standout. In one game, he scored 28 points against Paramus High School and led his squad to a win. When asked about his time at Old Tappan, he replied, “Yeah, it was great, I was able to see my friends every day, it was different. I [first] went to Bergen Catholic, it was a private Catholic school versus a public school, definitely a different vibe. So I transferred there, [Old Tappan] for my sophomore season, was able to play out my sophomore season, like 10-12 games, and honestly, I missed the Catholic school vibe, I really liked the Catholic school vibe, learning environment, teachers, I kind of missed that from Bergen Catholic.”
The summer after his sophomore year, Fizulich was on a mission to find another Catholic school. This was how he went about it. “So, I was able to get my film from Old Tappan season out to other Catholic school coaches, so that was kind of how I found Stepinac, Coach Pat [Massaroni] was kind of willing to give me an opportunity, that’s kind of how I landed there.”
He then decided on Stepinac, which was a 30-minute drive across the Tappan Zee Bridge from his residence in Harrington Park to the school on Mamaroneck Avenue in White Plains, New York. Although it was a different experience than what he was used to, he was willing to make sacrifices for a good opportunity.
“It was definitely different than just taking the bus to school, 10 minutes. If you leave late, you get stuck, an hour traffic, if I leave early enough, it was 35-40 minutes, so I mean, the commute, it was different, but it wasn’t that bad, it’s not as bad as people think. It gave me a routine, ‘cause I had to wake up early, I had to, you know, eat breakfast early, get out of the house early, and, yeah, I just kind of built a routine for myself, it really wasn’t that bad,” he said.
On getting adjusted to the Crusaders in the beginning of his junior season, he replied, “You know, I love those guys, the beginning was a little tough, because I didn’t really have a spot, so Eddie, Junior, both of those guys had their spots, so I just had to work really hard in practice, go hard in practice, play my best in practice, kind of just show out and and show everybody that I was there, not just to be, you know, at the end of the bench, just to play, to start. And I got better defensively, because we were kind of lacking that when I got there my junior year, so when I was finally able to get on the court, my defense, really, just kept me out there, and as I started to get more comfortable, I started to shoot more, my junior year. As we started to get into the playoffs, I think in the playoffs, I averaged 15 points, so that was a good way to mesh into my senior year, and a really good way to end my junior year, I thought, so yeah, it was definitely tough at first, but it ended very well in my opinion.”
In the beginning of the season, the Crusaders struggled with many injuries, but still managed to get to the CHSAA “AA” championship game with a 14-16 record. Although they would lose to Christ the King, Stepinac fought their way through adversity to the very end. Fizulich averaged six points per game.
“Junior year, as a whole, it was a lot of learning experiences, I learned a lot about the league, different players. It prepared me for my senior year, I thought. My junior year, obviously, I thought was really fun, really good experience, great group of guys, and just for me, I just got a lot better, and I thought that was a really, really big year for me, especially at the end of the year, with me being able to persevere, with little bumps in the road in the beginning. That was just a fun year, we played great players, great teams, definitely prepared me for this year. It was just tough losing to CTK in the final, ‘cause I think we all thought we could’ve won it, but you know that happens, so what do you do?” he replied.
On playing for Coach Massaroni, he added: “Yeah, I mean, you know, Pat. Pat’s a great guy, he’s one of the best basketball minds I’ve ever been around, so that makes it easy to be around him and be coached by him. You know, when you really have respect for a guy, and a coach you know knows the game, it’s really easy to play for him. Pat’s knowledge is superior basketball knowledge, so that in itself, makes him a great basketball coach, and then also, just being able to relate to Pat, he’s a young guy, he’s not a 60, 70-year-old guy who doesn’t know what we’re going through, he was in high school 10-15 years ago, so you know, Pat knows, the things we’re going through, we can talk to him, really about anything, so it really made a comfortable spot for me, and Pat’s just a great guy, great coach, and he’s found a way to coach a group of guys, which isn’t easy to do, especially when you have two really good players like we do. So Pat’s a great coach, it’s fun to play for him. I’m going to miss it.”
This past season, Fizulich doubled up on his statistical performance, as he averaged 9.5 points and 3.4 rebounds per game, as he helped lead the Crusaders to an 18-9 record. On his senior season, he replied, “Senior year as a whole, I thought it was a really successful senior year, I think the beginning, we started out really well, City of Palms, I thought we showed, how good of a team we were at City of Palms, one loss in there doesn’t really sit right with us. But we were up there with the best of them, IMG, we lost by like 10 or something, I mean, just showing we were really able to stick with anybody, was really cool for us. Yeah, that was great, national showcases – City of Palms, HoopHall, Slam Dunk at the Beach – playing Paul VI, beating Paul VI, who was ranked No. 4 in the country, just being able to show that I could, and us as a whole, could hang with those ‘best teams in the country,’ was really exciting, really fun, and that’s what I always wanted, playing against national competition, and yeah, it was a great senior year, I thought, it’s just unfortunately, it ended the way it did.”
Because of the CO-VID 19 pandemic, Archbishop Stepinac and six other teams could not complete the remainder of their season in the CHSAA quarterfinals.
On not being able to complete the remainder of his senior season, Fizulich replied, “We won the Archdiocesan playoffs, you know, we really wanted that city and state, you know it’s kind of upsetting, but everybody had to deal with that, so can’t dwell on it. It was really tough, you know, as we were preparing for that playoff game, that first round of the city playoffs, with Iona [Prep], we kind of practiced for like two weeks straight, because they kept postponing the game, we were supposed to play on a Sunday, originally, but they postponed it, because Fordham had cancelled everything, then we kind of just practiced for two weeks straight, getting ready, keeping our bodies in shape, so when we finally got the news that we couldn’t finish the season, it was honestly like, demoralizing, defeating, ‘cause we were so, I feel like we were so prepared to beat them and win that game that it just bothered everybody, but they didn’t get to play either, so it’s not like we’re the only one.”
With Stepinac now in his rearview mirror as far as high school, college awaits him. On April 30th, he announced that he will be a preferred walk-on at Marquette University. When asked about how the opportunity to play for the Division I program from the Big East came about, he replied, “This summer [in September], at the open gyms, Marquette was there, they were actually recruiting R.J. [Davis] at the time, and Villanova was there, recruiting A.J. [Griffin] at the time, so at those open gyms, we kind of had a lot of big-time coaches there, and I actually had two opportunities, Villanova, at the time offered me a preferred walk-on spot there, and Marquette did the same. So, you know those are great schools, great opportunities, so I talked to my coach and I said, ‘Listen, coach, I want to jump on this,’ He was like, ‘Wait, let the season play out, I think that’d be best,’ and you know, we agreed, that that was best, to see if any of the Division I schools that were talking to me at the time, like the Patriot and the Ivy League schools, if they offered me, you know, take that route, instead of the preferred walk-on route, and I thought was a good idea to play out the season, to see how that worked out. Unfortunately, none of the coaches that recruited me pulled the trigger, so it kind of worked out like that, and at the end of the season I texted Pat, I had some family conversations with Pat, and I said, ‘Pat, are those opportunities still available?’ He reached out and I was able to talk to Coach Wojo [Steve Wojciechowski] and Coach Dwayne [Killings], I was able to talk to them and kind of figured it out, and yeah, I’m super excited for the opportunity to play on a potential national contender. It’s awesome, so I’m really excited.”
A walk-on on the Division I level is a player that does not have a scholarship, but is still on the team, and is tasked with helping to challenge the scholarship players in practice to help them prepare for big games.
On entering the walk-on role, he replied, “So, yeah, I kind of talked to Coach [Wojciechowski] about this, what that role means, is helping the team in any way I can, so if that means being the best scout player I can be, that’s what it means, if that means getting the team prepared for playing Villanova, or playing Providence, St. John’s, whoever it is, giving them a good look, and making sure I do my job so we can win the game, so if I can’t do my job on the court, I’m going to do it in practice, I’m going to do it in film, I’m going to do it in the weight room, if that’s my role, then I’m going to embrace it, and do the best I can, and I think that’s going to be interesting and new, and I’m excited for it.”
When asked if he’ll be excited to travel to a lot of the major cities, which comes with being a Division I player, Fizulich added: “Yeah, that’s kind of a big part of why I chose this. There are other great opportunities like Division II, that I had, Division III, but I kind of just wanted that big stage, traveling with the big-time players and playing against big-time teams, you know, this is what you want as a kid, so when I had that opportunity, I knew I would always be upset with myself if I didn’t take it, embrace it and try to make the most of it, so it was kind of a no-brainer for me when that was on the table, so that’s kind of what you said, it’s going to be cool to see all of those arenas. Marquette, we play at FiServ, we play where the [Milwaukee] Bucks play, so it’s going to be really cool.”
Whether he gets minimal playing time or whether he gets 20 minutes on the court for the Golden Eagles, Luke Fizulich will make the most of his opportunity at Marquette. He’s always been a hard-worker and he won’t stop now. He doesn’t know how to stop, he just keeps going until perfection has been reached.