Not just for kicks
FORT WORTH — He’s won more than 400 games as the women’s soccer coach at Nolan Catholic High School and led the Lady Vikings to 17 TAPPS state finals, but that’s not how Jay Fitzgerald measures success.
“It’s not just about the X’s and O’s,” he said, with a term used when strategizing player formations. “I want the girls to think back on the opportunities they had at Nolan and be able to make good choices. I want them to leave here as better human beings.”
Nolan’s holistic approach to education and its strong sense of community drew the Creighton University graduate to the school in 1998. After playing college soccer in the early 1990s and earning a degree in exercise physiology, Fitzgerald scrapped plans to become a physical therapist to pursue a professional career in Major League Soccer. The Missouri Valley Conference’s 1995 Defensive Player of the Year played with the Dallas Burn from 1996-1997, the Sacramento Scorpions (A-League) in 1997, and the Texas Spurs before joining Texas Christian University’s soccer program as a graduate assistant.
Working with local club soccer leagues introduced him to Nolan athletes.
“I had some players mention their coach was leaving so I applied for the job,” he explained. “I’ve been here ever since, and it’s been a great ride.”
Fitzgerald took the helm of women’s soccer at Nolan just as the sport was gaining prominence. Title IX legislation in the 1970s required equal funding for men’s and women’s college athletics, generating new opportunities for females in the sporting arena. Many young girls joined soccer teams hoping their abilities controlling the ball or defending the goal would eventually help fund higher education through scholarships.
Today, with World Cup and Olympic victories cementing its popularity, U.S. women’s soccer is considered the best in the world.
Fitzgerald wants his players to become part of that success story.
“We have players who want to go on to become professional soccer players and make a good living, or use it to study nursing, law, or whatever and get their education paid for,” he said. “With all the options girls have now, we want to give them that opportunity.”
The Nolan women’s soccer team receives an average of two college scholarships a year. Since Fitzgerald joined the school’s athletic program 22 years ago, 40 to 50 of his players were recruited to play college soccer.
“I love Nolan because the school gives us the resources necessary to help these girls maximize their development whether it’s cameras, uniforms, the best equipment, or the nicest goals,” he continued. “We have resources, good staff, good facilities, and great players. Student athletes are transferring in, knowing they want to spend the next three or four years here because of the environment.”
Team captain Grace Gnatovic began playing soccer as a four- or five-year-old and stayed with the sport because of its extreme competitive nature. The Texas-A&M-bound senior sees the same assertive, unflinching spirit in her coach.
“He has a lot of energy and gives his all in everything he does,” Gnatovic observed.
Team members hope to repay his dedication with a championship this year.
“Each day we get better, not just in soccer, but growing as individual people,” the 18-year-old pointed out. “Our chemistry is an advantage. We’re a very close, sister-like team and that helps the way we play on the field.”
Gnatovic’s teammate, Madison Ginani, who likes how the sport is so unpredictable, will play Division III soccer at the University of Dallas. She describes her coach as passionate about the game but more concerned about his team.
“He really cares about us,” said the varsity senior, who plays a defensive position. “Coach Jay always told us to master the things that require no talent. I may not be the best at something, but I have to try to the best of my ability. I’ll carry that with me for the rest of my life.”
Helping students like Gnatovic and Ginani achieve their full potential is as important as checking off games in the win column, Fitzgerald insisted.
“Nolan is a college prep school and I want to treat it like a college,” emphasized the coach, who teaches three classes of broadcasting. “When they get to college, I want it to be a seamless transition, so we talk about goal setting, time management, and how to be a better student in the classroom. Good students in the classroom are better players on the field.”
The veteran coach praises the 19 varsity and 15 junior varsity players under his charge for being dedicated souls. It’s not uncommon for the team to compete six days in a row in weather that’s often cold and inclement. Nolan soccer isn’t just a November to February sport. Training and conditioning continues for 12 months.
“Three hundred and sixty-five days a year they are 100 percent engaged,” Fitzgerald said. “I can’t say enough about the players, their attitude toward each other, the school, their faith, and pride in Nolan Catholic.”
During a rare weekend off from tournaments, team members gathered at the home of one of the players. Instead of eating popcorn and watching movies, the young athletes discussed their aspirations for the rest of the season. Nationally ranked for more than two decades and the winner of many district and regional titles, Lady Viking soccer has one goal that remains elusive — the state championship. Fitzgerald’s team lost to Ursuline Academy 16 times since 1998. Last year it came in second to St. Agnes.
“There have been times when we’ve lost in the state final year after year,” the coach admitted. “What’s important to me is what they accomplish on the way to state. Win, lose, or draw, I want them respected. They deserve that because they work so hard.”
He believes the determination, ambition, and mental fortitude developed for success on the soccer field will benefit his players later in life.
“At the end of the day, if soccer isn’t in their future, hopefully they’ll put together all the positives they’ve learned about turning a second-place red ribbon to blue to get into the university, internship program, or job they want,” Fitzgerald stressed. “Moving forward is a daily process. Of course, we want to win state, but every single day the girls have to do things to help them be a better person.”