Ivories were key to Fitzgerald's start

Boys soccer: Loyola's goalkeeper has 12 years of piano-playing experience, 11 shutouts in goal and a 3.8 grade point average.

October 29, 2004|By Glenn P. Graham | Glenn P. Graham,SUN STAFF

Loyola junior goalkeeper Akira Fitzgerald considered the trade-off more than an even one.

He was about 5 years old at the time and willing to do anything to get on a soccer field.

"My mom said if I wanted to play soccer, I had to learn to play the piano, too - no matter what. So as long as I've been playing soccer, I've been playing piano," he said.

Fitzgerald, now 17, is into playing classical music and a little jazz, as well as keeping the No. 9 Dons (13-5-1) in every game with a complete goalkeeper package that is largely consistent, but also spectacular when called on.

Loyola, coming off an impressive 2-0 win over No. 2 Archbishop Curley on Tuesday, opens the Maryland Interscholastic Athletic Association A Conference tournament as the fourth seed, hosting fifth-seeded Gilman this afternoon in the opening round.

Ask Loyola coach Kyle Swords to pinpoint any one strength of his goalkeeper's game and he's stumped, much like all those would-be goal scorers that find Fitzgerald in the way.

"It's a little bit of a combination of everything really," Swords said. "But maybe the one thing I've seen that's impressed me most is he's very technically sound. He's very, very clean with everything he does in goal."

A first-team All-Metro selection last year and an Olympic Development Program region pool player, Fitzgerald isn't your prototypical goalie.

At 5 feet 10, he's not an imposing presence in the goal, compensating with smart decisions, quickness and agility, and hands that stick to the ball.

And unlike most keepers, he doesn't have a funny story about how he got stuck playing in goal with he was younger (he simply asked while playing for a Mount Washington recreational team when he first started) or a quirky personality that sets him apart from field players.

Fitzgerald - whose first name, Akira, means "intelligence, brightness" in Japanese (his mother's ancestry) - simply aspires to be consistent.

In his third varsity season, he is 13-5-1 with 11 shutouts and a stingy 0.73 goals-against average.

"You have to be able to make the big saves and everything, but it's just as important to do the simple things right and not make mistakes," said Fitzgerald, who plays club ball for the Baltimore Bays under-18 team. "I get satisfaction knowing I played a good game, didn't make any big mistakes and our team came out of it with a win."

Named a captain this season, Fitzgerald displays command of his penalty area, is the vocal organizer in back and is a fine distributor of the ball.

Still, it's the game-changing saves - often a result of his timely aggressiveness and quick reaction time - that stand out and give his team the biggest lifts.

"I just pat him on the back, let him know how much it means to us because he comes up big so much. ... It's just great to have him back there," said senior defender John Lindsay.

And for Fitzgerald, it's great to be back there.

"I've been around it so long, it's pretty natural. I just feel real comfortable on the field, and there's no place I'd rather be than on a soccer field. It's a fun place to be," he said.

What about playing for the other side, burdened with the chore of getting a ball past Fitzgerald?

It would seem discouraging to most, but McDonogh All-Metro senior midfielder Mike Marchiano has a different perspective.

Early in the season, the top-ranked Eagles put 15 shots on Fitzgerald and they had to escape with two goals in the second half to come back for a 2-1 win.

Marchiano, who tied the game in the 55th minute, recalls about five balls he threaded through to his forwards to create one-on-one scoring opportunities as well as a couple of his own chances that went for naught.

"When we play them, I don't get frustrated because I don't expect anything less from Akira," he said. "We don't expect to score four or five goals when we go up against Loyola. It's more relief than anything once you get one by him."

McDonogh coach Steve Nichols added: "In a normal game, we probably score seven or eight goals."

Fitzgerald, who has a 3.8 grade point average, still takes a piano lesson every week. He's supposed to practice every day, but doesn't always have the time with studies and soccer coming first. He used to regularly play recitals and concerts, but now it's just more in front of family and friends.

"Playing piano is a completely different experience than playing soccer," Fitzgerald said. "You get nervous when you play in a big soccer game, but playing piano concerts, for me, that's more nerve-racking because you're the only one out there and everyone is watching you. But I think it's helped me out a lot - my hands are pretty good."

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