Riley Fitzwater making an impact at the collegiate level

Gilmer grad key piece to Concord hoops team

Sid Hatfield, Concord University Concord’s Riley Fitzwater goes up for two points against Urbana. The former Gilmer County center has made her name known in the conference in just two short seasons.

PARKERSBURG — A stand-out center during her four years at Gilmer County High School, Riley Fitzwater expected taller competition in the college game upon arrival one year ago on the Concord University women’s basketball team in Athens, W.Va.

An expectation coupled with the belief she would block a few shots as a solid role player off the bench for Mountain Lions’ head coach Kenny Osborne. Certainly, starting as a freshman or being a significant immediate offensive contributor was out of the question, right?

Well … Turns out, the players were not as tall as she thought nor was the plan for her to spend time on the pine.

Ironically, she stands as the tallest player in the Lions’ home league, the Mountain East Conference. Height not coming around very often for Osborne or his staff.

Her Mountain Lion teammates saw the potential in the 6-foot-5 two-time Class A All-State First-Team selection during summer pick-up games. Her scoring prowess, defensive instincts and body awareness were readily noticeable to each player.

Everyone wanted the 2016 Little Kanawha Conference Player of the Year involved in the fortunes of the NCAA Division II program immediately. All players were making a concerted effort to tell her right away how good she could be at the higher level.

While she struggled with her teammates’ and coach’s belief during the first three pre-season games and the pace of the game, everything fell in line during her first collegiate start against Clarion.

Fitzwater shot 10 of 11 from the floor for 20 points, grabbed 13 rebounds and tallied four blocked shots during 31 minutes of playing time in a losing effort.

“I didn’t expect to start at all,” she said. “He (Osburne) told me a couple weeks before the game ‘You are going to start for us and we will see how you do.’

“I wasn’t sure how ready I was but the results really opened my eyes and I thought maybe I could do it and not be on the bench the whole season.”

Another benefit came in the form of her willingness to run the floor, something Gilmer County coach Amy Chapman got on to her about constantly in high school.

“Those are my easiest points,” said Fitzwater with a chuckle. “The other big girls aren’t going to run the floor and because of my height I can get a nice layup or shot.”

Her name — once pencilled in — went to penned in the starting lineup following her breakout against the Golden Eagles. She is a starter in every game as a key piece of a group which led the program to its best record (13-16) since a 23-6 mark after the 2011-12 campaign.

Fairmont State’s Sierra Kotchman won conference freshman of the year establishing a new Falcons scoring record for first-year players with 515 points or 18.4 per game. Fitzwater wasn’t far behind with 13.9 points, 11.8 rebounds, and 4 blocks per contest. She also led Division II in field-goal percentage at 70.4 percent.

“The kids have great confidence in her because they know it is usually two points and she is unselfish,” said Osburne. “She knows when to pass the ball out to give us a wide-open three look.”

Concord’s currently off to the best start in school history this season (5-2) since a 9-1 beginning in 2011-12. Fitzwater remains a consistent top option to the cause. Most recently being named co-MEC player of the week after recording the first triple-double in program history (10 points, 20 rebounds and 11 blocks) in an 85-71 win on Dec. 1 over West Virginia State, and finishing five blocks short of another in a loss to Charleston last Wednesday.

Her numbers are not far off last season’s pace with 13.5 points, 14.8 rebounds and 4.6 blocks per contest.

“I am always striving to improve,” she said when asked if she is pleased with the start to her collegiate career. “My perimeter defense isn’t good. I am not as fast as I should be.”

“She works hard every day on different post moves as people take things away from her,” said Osburne. “I talk to a lot of people who wished they had recruited her but I thought it was a done deal since I was from there. With us electing to throw the ball inside as everyone else switches to guards, a post player would be a fool not to come play for us.”

As far as school is concerned, Fitzwater stays above a 3.5 grade point average while trying to juggle basketball and classes.

“Some weeks are harder than others,” she said. “Classes are pretty easy as I am in sports management. They aren’t nearly as challenging as I expected them to be.”