Thibault-DuDonis wasting no time taking Fairfield to new heights

Carly Thibault-DuDonis conducts a timeout. Fairfield Athletics photo.

When Carly Thibault-DuDonis took the helm of the Fairfield basketball program in 2022, it wasn’t hard to imagine her enhancing the success of the program, given her coaching lineage.

But no one necessarily expected the incredible season that the team has had this year.

After losing their third game by just 3 points, the 24-1 Stags have won 22 straight, breaking a 50-year-old program record and standing behind only No. 1 South Carolina with the longest winning streak in Division I. One more win will tie Fairfield for the most wins in program history.

Last weekend they clinched the MAAC regular-season championship, with a perfect 16-0 record. They’ve beaten opponents from seven different conferences, including two Power 5 teams, by an average of 19.1 points per game. They have been on the verge of being ranked in the AP top 25 poll for weeks.

Thibault-DuDonis’ former boss Lindsay Whalen, for whom she served as associate head coach at the University of Minnesota, said the elevation of the Stags program was all in the cards.

“The success that Fairfield is having is certainly outstanding, but not surprising,” Whalen said. “Carly was born for this. She is the hardest-working person I’ve seen during my time in the coaching world. She is innovative, thoughtful and poised.”

“Watching her team, you can see her personality all over the floor. I can’t wait to see them in March!”

Thibault-DuDonis, the daughter of former WNBA coach and NBA assistant coach Mike Thibault, guided the Stags to a 15-15 record in her first season. This year, with four of her own recruits as true freshmen, the team has won the league title for the fifth time in program history, and is poised to make a solid run in the conference tournament. A win there could give them an auto-bid to the NCAA Tournament.

In taking the head coaching position after Joe Frager’s successful 15-year run, Thibault-DuDonis said she was “starting from a very good place.”

“I was drawn to Fairfield for various reasons, but first and foremost, the people,” she said. “Our athletic director, Paul Schlickmann, and deputy AD, Zach Dayton, were both aspirational, invested in women’s sports, and specifically women’s basketball. They are student-athlete development-driven, and were both family-oriented. I loved the campus, the draw of a high-academic institution, and the geographical location and ability to recruit anywhere in the world, with proximity to New York City and Boston.”

Before joining Fairfield, Thibault-DuDonis was with the Gophers after assistant coaching stops at Mississippi State, Eastern Michigan and Florida State.

In seeking to make the program her own, the first-time head coach focused on a few key areas: fostering relations, establishing standards and values, and creating culture. She said the coaching staff has built player relationships with care, based on their program standards: selflessness, toughness, accountability and gratitude.

“We have also been intentional about the type of system we want to play on the basketball court, and we have recruited accordingly to fit that system,” Thibault-DuDonis said. “This year, you can see the depth we’ve added to our roster, which allows us to play faster, but has also improved the ability to shoot the ball and space the floor. The combination of culture and talent has allowed us to take huge leaps this year as a program.”

Assistant coach Erik Johnson said Thibault-DuDonis’ emphasis on creating a family atmosphere is perhaps her strongest tenant.

“The biggest change that Carly made to the culture was investing in relationships with every single student-athlete,” Johnson said. “She truly cares about each one of them as people and finds ways to show them every day by spending extra time shooting with them, hanging out in the gym chatting…checking in with them when they are hurting or have a family member who is sick, etc.”

“She has also put an emphasis on teaching life skills outside of basketball, such as interviewing, professional networking with alumni, financial literacy, entrepreneurship, and media training.”

On the court, Fairfield likes to play with space on the floor, create open lanes, and share the ball. The team is 15th in the NCAA in field goal percentage,

“Carly has implemented a fast and wide open and somewhat ‘position-less’ style of play that shows our players how much she trusts them to make decisions and use their talents,” Johnson said. “She emphasizes ‘selfless’ in everything we do, both on and off the court.”

“She has taught servant leadership to our upper class and helped foster an environment where every player feels welcomed and valued. You can see these values shining through in our efficient ball movement, many assists, and our connected team defense that emphasizes being there for your teammates at all times.”

Defensively, the Stags are 5th in the NCAA, giving up 53.2 points per game, and are in the top 10 in opponents’ field goal percentage.

“We sacrifice for each other on the defensive end with heavy ball pressure, aggressive switching, and protecting the paint so we can play in freedom and with pace on offense,” Thibault-DuDonis said.

Meghan Andersen looks for an outlet. Fairfield Athletics photo.

Freshman Meghan Anderson leads the team in scoring with 15.9 points per game on 54 percent shooting, including 36 percent from beyond the arc. She said she has been able to thrive under Thibault-DuDonis’ system.

“Playing under coach Carly has been such a rewarding and encouraging experience,” Anderson said. “She is someone who is willing to push us – individually and as a team – to meet our potential. Coach Carly is the type of coach that I envisioned myself playing for because she has created a competitive atmosphere that motivates me to put in the extra work, and always give 100 percent effort.”

“In addition to a competitive atmosphere, she has formed a family-like environment that makes practices and games much more exciting because we are playing for each other, not ourselves. She has also surrounded the team with the most supportive, hard-working, and passionate staff.”

Anderson said the Stags’ coaching staff, which includes Johnson, Erika Brown and Blake DuDonis, has helped her make the adjustment from high school to college play.

“Our coaching staff has helped me grow as a player in various ways,” Anderson said. “Whether working on my shot/post moves with coach Blake or rebounding drills with coach E, they are always willing to help me expand my game. But it goes deeper than that.”

“They have all taught me how to be a better teammate for my team. They emphasize connections and energy because that is what elevates us and what sets us apart. We see a positive impact on the court when we have high power and high connections. Ultimately, I couldn’t be more grateful for this coaching staff and everything they have done and will continue to do for this team.”

Senior Janelle Brown has seen an uptick in her productivity this season, as she is averging 13.9 points per game on 60 percent shooting – up from 41 percent in her junior campaign.

Thibault-DuDonis, who grew up talking basketball with her father, said she truly loves the athletes she coaches.

“I find joy in building strong relationships with our student-athletes based on trust and genuine care for them to be their best selves,” she said. “My purpose in what I do is so much bigger than basketball, and when you care about those around you as people first, the basketball part takes care of itself and allows you to coach honestly and transparently.”

Fairfield has four more MAAC games over the next 11 days, before they head to the conference tournament. They host Quinnipiac tomorrow.