By Matt Goisman
McALESTER — Though they still have a sub-.500 record, the 2013-14 McAlester Buffaloes are playing a far more exciting style of basketball than they did last year. They’ve already won six games, the same number as they won all of last season, and they’re ranked 20th in Class 5A as of Thursday morning.
McAlester senior center Michael Stizza said the Buffs set the tone for their new season when they beat Hugo 41-40 on Opening Night on Dec. 3.
“It was the first game for Coach (Chris) Zike as the head coach, and I felt like everybody was on the same page with each other,” Stizza said Tuesday. “We all really just wanted to win the game for him.”
Though born in Arlington, Texas, Stizza said he was adopted at birth and has lived his entire life in McAlester. He grew up in McAlester Public Schools, and he said he began playing basketball as an 8-year-old at the Boys and Girls Club.
“I used to wear glasses when I was little, and I got hit in the eye with the ball,” Stizza said. “Somebody threw a pass, and my eye caught it.”
The experience didn’t scare him off basketball. Stizza played for Puterbaugh, McAlester’s freshmen team and then the junior varsity as a sophomore before taking his junior year off to focus on his grades.
Stizza finally made the varsity as a senior this season.
Always a center, Stizza described his offensive responsibilities as “scoring the ball as often as possible, and if you can’t score, you kick it out.” As a defender, Stizza said, “If they have their head down, I like to get over, set my feet and try to get a charge. But other than that, it’s just trying to make sure I’m in position to not let the other post get the ball.”
Basketball has been Stizza’s only sport in high school, but he said he played football in junior high until he broke his ankle. Rehabbing that injury with Excel Therapy in McAlester, he said, has made him want to become a physical trainer after college.
Stizza said his dream school is the University of Oklahoma in Norman. He’s currently taking two college-level classes at Eastern Oklahoma State College’s McAlester campus.
“I’ve always grown up watching them play, and when I was older I started looking into the university a little bit more,” Stizza said of OU. “And going into physical therapy, I felt like that was a good school.”
But before college, Stizza has one last season with the Buffs. Stizza said this year’s team began bonding together during offseason weight room sessions — a new requirement instituted by Zike that has also helped the Buffs stay physically strong through a full four-quarter game.
“Coach Zike tells us every day that he feels like this is the team that can finally get past that first round of Regionals,” Stizza said.
“I kind of want to go out with at least making it to State, but I’d prefer to win the whole thing. I think this team has the opportunity if we all focus.”
When he’s not playing basketball, he’s watching it on TV. His favorite team is the Oklahoma City Thunder, his favorite players the Thunder’s Kevin Durant or Boston Celtics forward Jared Sullinger.
“He always plays hard, and he never lets you down, and he always finds a way to score no matter where he is,” Stizza said of Durant. Of Sullinger, he said, “He’s shorter, like I am, than most posts, and he always gets the right position, and he’s always fighting.”
Stizza has also played baritone in the Pride of McAlester marching band, getting to march at Friday-night football games and perform at competitions. He said he’s been in band all four years of high school, during which time the Pride of McAlester has taken home numerous awards, including the Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Associations’ State Sweepstakes Accent Award last year.
In his spare time, Stizza said he’s mowed lawns and worked at Pete’s Place in Krebs. He’s also an active member at St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in McAlester, working with the youth group and taking part in presentations of the Stations of the Cross.
Stizza said the biggest lesson he’s taken from Zike has been to “always keep fighting.” Stizza’s final basketball season could end within a month, but that lesson will serve him well for years to come.
Contact Matt Goisman at email@example.com.