By: Cole Shelton
The Cape Breton Highlanders added several top free agents in bringing back Bruce Massey Jr, signing reigning sixth man of the year, Ta'Quan Zimmerman, former Island Storm sharpshooter Chris Johnson as well as longtime NBLC veteran, Kenny Jones.
However, just two months out from the season, the Highlanders announced that Rob Spon would no longer be the head coach and assistant coach Bernardo Fitz-Gonazlez would take over the reins. Fitz-Gonzalez has been playing and coaching for several years and that experience led to Cape Breton hiring him.
"First I was an assistant helping Rob, and they told me he is no longer the head coach and I will become the head coach. I have coached in South America, won a championship there," said Fitz-Gonzalez in a recent phone interview. "I have coached against many professional teams in Peru, Puerto Rico, Brazil, Argentina. The expectation is be the best we can be with these guys, you know. Compete every night and see what the results are."
For Fitz-Gonzalez he is coaching a team that missed the playoffs and the front office took steps to improve the roster by adding NBLC veterans. Having veterans in this league is so crucial to a teams success and Fitz-Gonzalez understands that.
"It is very important, yeah, to bring that experience, guys that know the league. I think we can play really good defence with these guys, we have some guys that are accomplished in the offence," added Fitz-Gonzalez. "Chris (Johnson) is a great shooter, Jamal (Reynolds) is a really energetic guy who can run the floor and do the little things for us. But, yeah, I think they will be really good for our team."
With the roster set to be in good shape, Fitz-Gonzalez knows the team has what it takes to make the playoffs. However, for the team to be successful, Fitz-Gonzalez knows they have to play better defence. The defensive end of the court last season was a major problem for Cape Breton and made a huge impact on why they didn't make the playoffs. The Highlanders allowed opponents to shoot 47.2 per cent from the field.
"What I am going to do first for the Highlanders is we are going to play defence. The last season we allowed 112 points per game, that is not acceptable. I know in this league the emphasis is not on defence, but that is a no from me," the new head coach said. "I know the first thing I am going to do for this team, even if we have the best shooters or the best guys in the low post, whatever, I am going to focus first on defence. Everything starts with defence. If you don't have the ball you can not score.
"The first thing I am going to do is play tough defence and do the little things for the team. Score in transition, and score easy baskets. If that is not the case, we are going to run a system for the best spots for our players, even shooters or down to the post," Fitz-Gonzalez continued. "It is going to be a different way of playing basketball. We are going to move together, we are going to play together. The right shot is going to come. I don't like to take forced shots or crazy shots. I want everybody to play together and take the best shots for the best guy in the moment."
If the Highlanders can play solid defence there is no reason why they shouldn't be in the mix for the playoffs this season. They have weapons on offence and with proven players who have shown they can be top offensive guys in the NBLC.
If all goes well, Fitz-Gonzalez will lead the Highlanders into the promised land, but first, he, along with front office will decide on the final roster. With training camp around the corner, the rookie head coach in the NBLC knows his players need to be ready to play and play hard.
"We are going to have about 18 guys the first few days. The first thing I am going to check, is these guys are professional basketball players they need to be in shape. They need to come in, in the best shape of their lives," added Fitz-Gonzalez. "I believe if you are a professional basketball player you need to be in shape and be professional. I am going to check what kind of shape these guys are in, and we are going to work really hard. Personalities, character and if they are coachable. I am going to try and find my 12 guys that are able to compete, are coachable and will be playing together. They need to help each other to win, fight for each other. I am looking for all those things in the first few days of training camp. Try and see what guys are able to play for us this season."
Once Fitz-Gonzalez does all that, he will have a roster who is ready to play for him and play defence. Once that happens, Fitz-Gonzalez knows the team will be successful from his previous years coaching.