Emma Paul looks up to Kyla Fitzgerald … literally.
Paul and Fitzgerald are star basketball players at Armstrong High School. The two are close friends, and when it comes to height, they are an odd couple. Fitzgerald stands 6-feet-1, while Paul is just 5-3. Check that, according to Paul, she’s 5-4 with shoes on, and not 5-3 like she is listed on the team’s roster.
“They do me dirty,” Paul said, laughing.
Fitzgerald may have nearly a foot on Paul, but the standout juniors have both had their feet on the gas pedal for an Armstrong team that is off to its best start in the school’s eight-year history. The River Hawks (10-1) were unbeaten before losing to Mars Area Thursday, and could be a real player in the WPIAL Class 5A title race. If Armstrong is to win its first section or WPIAL championship, one of the WPIAL’s top scoring duos — both averages better than 17 points a game — will have played a big part in it.
“They’re two of the best that I’ve had, and they’re probably two of the best players that Armstrong has had, boys or girls basketball players,” Armstrong coach Jim Callipare said. “I’d say they’re two of the best, if not the best, that have come through here.”
Paul plays with a lot of heart and fearlessness, and Callipare called her “the heartbeat of the team.” Paul has been one of the top guards in Class 5A since her freshman season. She averaged 16.7 points per game as a freshman and 18 points as a sophomore, earning all-section recognition both seasons. This season, Paul leads the River Hawks with 18.1 points, 5.5 assists and 2.2 steals a game.
“She runs our team. She makes us go,” said Callipare, who is in his second season. “You don’t get players like that very often that are the complete package. She has the skill set, she has the heart and the hustle, and she’s tough as nails.”
Paul is a cerebral player, one of the best examples of that being that she knows when to dish off the ball to the team’s talented low-post threat.
“Her IQ [stands out],” Fitzgerald said. “She definitely knows how to get the ball to me, she knows when to get the ball to me, and I can always depend on her to be there if I can’t get anything inside.”
While Paul has starred throughout her career, Fitzgerald jumped into a bigger role this season after being a part-time starter a season ago. It has been a breakout season for a double-double machine who has averaged 17 points and a team-high 12.1 rebounds a game. She also leads the team with 16 blocked shots.
“She really worked hard in the offseason in AAU and doing things with the team. She’s really improved her game,” Callipare said of Fitzgerald, who like Paul plays for the Western Pa. Bruins.
Considering Fitzgerald’s height, Paul usually just needs to toss her the ball high and Fitzgerald will corral it. There’s a good chance the possession will end with a Fitzgerald basket, too.
“You can give her the ball anywhere. She’ll reach it. She’ll finish,” Paul said. “She thinks what I’m thinking. She knows where I’m going to go.”
Both players have been shooting the ball at a high clip. Fitzgerald is shooting 48.6% from the field and Paul 43.1%. Paul, an excellent perimeter shooter, has also drilled a team-best 32 3-pointers and is shooting 74% from the line. The tandem has combined to score about 64% of Armstrong’s points this season.
Fitzgerald’s emergence has forced opponents to pick their poison. Last season, some teams would put their tallest player on Paul, but with Fitzgerald now thriving in the post, foes have had to reconsider their plan of attack.
“I feel like they have to pick and choose now if they want to go big on me or big on Emma,” said Fitzgerald, who carries a 4.0 GPA.
Paul and Fitzgerald can often be found with one another off the court, as well. And according to Callipare, those interactions occasionally include singing.
“When we go on away trips, I have to tell them to turn [the music] down sometimes because they’re back there listening to their rap music and singing together. They’re having fun that way, which is good fun. They’re just as good of friends off the court as they are on the court.”
Both players are receiving college interest, but neither said they are close to making a decision. For Paul, that decision will likely include picking between basketball and softball. Paul is also one of the top softball players in the area. A slick-fielding shortstop, Paul was named all-state on the diamond each of her first two seasons and last season helped Armstrong win its first WPIAL title.
“I’m leaning toward basketball probably, but I’m not totally giving up on softball,” Paul said.
The odd couple of Paul and Fitzgerald hope to make this a special season for Armstrong. To those two, feet and inches are just numbers. The numbers they put up on the court are much more important, and slowing them down continues to become harder and harder for opponents.
“They’re hard to defend and they play off of each other really well,” Callipare said. “They’ve been playing together since they were really little, and you can just see the chemistry that they have out there. It’s really nice to see. It’s good basketball.”