May 11, 2024 

‘The people make the place’: At Fairfield, success is all about family

An in-depth look at a mid-major on the rise

FAIRFIELD, Conn. — On a Sunday in April, Fairfield University’s campus is abuzz. Students welcome members of the incoming class of 2028. Campus tours wander around.

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Inside the sparkling new Leo D. Mahoney Arena, women’s basketball assistant coach Blake DuDonis recalls a moment from the 2023-24 season as he walks past a tour group.

The Stags were having a historic season, but he noticed that mention of the program never made it into the tour guides’ spiels. As he walked past tours, he always made sure to interject: “And the women’s basketball team is on a 20-game winning streak!”

Fairfield is not yet synonymous with women’s basketball like its neighbor UConn, 90 miles north. That might soon change. The Stags have the players, they have the facilities and now they have the credibility for a dynastic run.

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In their second season under head coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis, the Stags finished 31-2. That included a 29-game winning streak, a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) Tournament championship, Thibault-DuDonis’ first NCAA Tournament appearance as a head coach (and several coach of the year awards), and premier seasons from senior Janelle Brown (MAAC Player of the Year) and Meghan Andersen (MAAC Rookie of the Year).

As their 33-point loss to Indiana in the first round of the NCAA Tournament indicated, though, far more work lies ahead.

However, the thing about Fairfield isn’t necessarily its breadth of talent or the eye-popping statistics. Talk to anyone in the program and neither talent nor stats are the first thing mentioned to explain its success.

The Stags are built on being a family. Literally. Thibault-DuDonis — or Coach Carly, as she prefers — and DuDonis — or Coach Blake, as he prefers — celebrated their seventh wedding anniversary in early May.

Thibault-DuDonis, who didn’t have head coaching aspirations until a couple years ago, has assembled a staff that also includes Erik Johnson and Erika Brown. Johnson has 25 years of experience, with head coaching stops at Denver and Boston College, and Brown was named to the Women’s Basketball Coaches Association’s Thirty Under 30 list this year.

Together, the coaches have started to build what they hope will turn into a mid-major juggernaut, the Florida Gulf Coast or the Gonzaga or the Drake of the Northeast.

They’ve received unbelievable buy-in from their players, several of whom stuck around when previous head coach Joe Frager retired after the 2021-22 season. They’ve added recruits such as Andersen who’ve contributed right away. They also just added transfers Jillian Huerter from Rutgers and Sydni Scott from Marshall, who can both knock down 3-pointers at a prolific clip.

How have they done it? There’s not one clear answer, but DuDonis took a crack at it.

“We’ve spent time thinking about this, and I truly think that from staff to student-athletes, we have good human beings here,” he told The Next. “I just think we have an amazing collection of human beings. You take that, and they’re all pretty good at basketball, and suddenly you’re playing really connected on the court, and you’re a good team. It’s not really a quantitative thing to me, but I ultimately really do think it’s actually that simple.”

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Efficiency in the post, 3-point shooting and scrambled eggs

There was never a path for Thibault-DuDonis’ life that didn’t end with her becoming the head coach of a basketball team, or so everyone around her always thought. Her father, Mike Thibault, now the general manager of the Washington Mystics, had a long NBA and WNBA coaching career. Her older brother, Eric, is the Mystics’ head coach.

Thibault-DuDonis, though, said it wasn’t until a couple years ago, when she was an assistant coach at Minnesota, that she caught the bug and wanted to take that next step. Lindsay Whalen, the Gophers’ head coach at the time, had an emergency appendectomy; Thibault-DuDonis filled in.

“I was like, ‘Oh, I get it now. It’s pretty fun,’” she told The Next. “I loved the response you get and the ability to affect a game in a different way. It kind of gave me a little bit of confidence that maybe I was more ready than I thought.”

DuDonis took a different path. His parents, he joked, probably couldn’t tell you the difference between a basketball and a football (though now they watch every Fairfield game).

He was a practice player at Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, North Carolina, and worked his way up from there, with stops most recently as an assistant coach at the University at Buffalo and as head coach for University of Wisconsin-River Falls.

He met Thibault-DuDonis on the road recruiting in 2014. Less than three years later, they married.

But they didn’t coach together until they came to Fairfield. Initially, that dynamic gave Johnson and Erika Brown pause when they were approached about joining the staff.

“You probably know plenty of married couples that you’d be like, ‘Oh my gosh, if they had to work together, it would be quite a deal!’” Johnson told The Next.

“Carly, when she was talking about the role, she said, ‘Look, I’m not going to tell you that Blake and I aren’t going to talk about basketball when we’re home. This is our lives; this is what we do. We love it. We’re going to talk about our team,’” Johnson said. “‘But we’re never going to make unilateral decisions outside of our staff.’”

Added Brown: “I really thought they were genuine, and I believed it, and then when I got here, just unbelievable,” she said. “It’s funny because we joke around all the time, sometimes it’s like, you wouldn’t even know that they’re married.”

Add Johnson, who Janelle Brown dubbed the team’s “grandpa” (even though he’s only 52 years old and vehemently pushes back on that nickname), and Erika Brown, the youngest of the four coaches at 29, and the staff has its own family dynamic.

“I have two kids in college, so I am literally their dad’s age. I think that’s a fun role,” Johnson said. “I’m 20 years older than pretty much all the rest of the staff, but look, they keep me young, and it’s a fun group. Tons of energy.”

The Fairfield coaching staff poses for a photo with the MAAC regular-season championship trophy. They are all wearing black shirts that read, "Love wins" in rainbow colors.
From left to right: Blake DuDonis, Carly Thibault-DuDonis, Erik Johnson and Erika Brown celebrate with the MAAC regular-season championship trophy. (Photo credit: Fairfield Athletics)

Thibault-DuDonis and DuDonis go to such lengths to keep their coaching relationship professional that they drive separately to work. But when practice is over, the door to their home is always open.

Over the summer, DuDonis — who by all accounts has developed into the team chef — welcomes the players for cooking classes.

“He chefs it up,” Janelle Brown told The Next. “We did a shrimp taco class at his house. Bussin’. He had this mango sauce. Bussin’. This man can cook.”

“I make a pretty good carne asada taco, some homemade salsa verde,” DuDonis said soon after they’d hosted a transfer on an official visit and cooked breakfast for her. “I’m also big on making just epic nachos.”

Like on the basketball court, players possess different levels of skill as chefs. Andersen, the freshman, seems to have the most learning to do.

“Meg’s got a list,” DuDonis said. “We’re going to work on that. We’ve got efficiency in the post, we got 3-point shooting and we got scrambled eggs.”

It’s all in good fun, and hopefully the players have learned about affordable, healthy meals they can make for themselves, DuDonis said. But the cooking classes also speak to the throughline for the program.

“Truly, this team is our family,” DuDonis said. “Every program says that, but for us to be literally family and then be able to come in every day and really love on our team, I do think it makes a difference.”

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The number 33 comes up a lot in conversation with the Fairfield staff.

The Stags were a No. 13 seed in the 2024 NCAA Tournament. They’d entered their first-round matchup against Indiana at Assembly Hall on a 29-game winning streak. They were confident they could win, and for the first 22 minutes, they were right in it, trailing just 46-43 at the 7:27 mark of the third quarter.

Then the Hoosiers went on a monstrous 43-13 run, and Fairfield’s season ended with a thud, 89-56. The combination of Indiana’s size and elite shooting against the Stags’ lack of height and relative inexperience ultimately allowed the Hoosiers to blow it open. The Stags walked off the court dispirited, not feeling sorry for themselves that their season was over but with a renewed edge, knowing they’re not quite there yet.

“I do think there was a level of introspection, almost where it was like, ‘Hmmm, OK. They thumped us. We lost that,’” DuDonis said.

But it didn’t necessarily feel like the end of the year, at least from DuDonis’ point of view. With much of the key cast returning, it felt more like a bump in the road, with unfinished business still ahead.

After all, the season as a whole proved that what Fairfield is doing is working.

When Thibault-DuDonis was hired, she and her staff pored over film of other mid-major programs that had experienced sustained success. One common theme: a five-out offense that spaced the floor. Each team employed its offensive strategy differently, but that common philosophy remained.

“We’re not trying to ground-break in terms of doing something that’s never been done. There is a road map there,” DuDonis said. “There’s some parts of it that are blurred out and you gotta figure it out, but there’s a path. There’s people that have done it, so we’d be silly not to pull from them.”

Whether it’s Karl Smesko’s Florida Gulf Coast teams, Lisa Fortier’s Gonzaga Bulldogs or Drake under Allison Pohlman, efficient scoring always creates an edge for programs that are relatively undersized.

Like FGCU — which lists every single player on its roster as a “shooter” instead of a guard, forward or center — Fairfield created its own position name as well. The Stags have guards, but they also have “road runners,” players who might traditionally be categorized as forwards but can shoot from the perimeter.

They love positionless basketball because it adds versatility. In the first half against Indiana, their five-out style forced Hoosiers center Mackenzie Holmes out of her comfort zone.

“I like mobile over size,” Thibault-DuDonis said. “It kind of embodies that in their ability to step out to the perimeter. It’s an identity that that group can buy into and rally around, and it definitely paid off.”

Fairfield's Meghan Andersen shoots a right-handed layup as a Manhattan defender arrives too late to contest the shot.
Fairfield’s Meghan Andersen floats up a shot against Manhattan on Dec. 18, 2023. Andersen averaged nearly 15 points per game and shot 36.1% from 3-point range during her freshman season. (Photo credit: Fairfield Athletics)

Andersen, in her freshman season, served as the blueprint for why the road runner can be such a valuable asset. At 6’1, she always viewed herself as more than a post player, and while other college coaches who recruited her wanted to confine her to that box, Fairfield always saw more.

Even if Andersen’s success at the college level came earlier than anticipated, the Stags’ hunch that she was more than a post player was correct. Andersen averaged nearly 15 points per game on 50.7% shooting overall and 36.1% from 3-point range. Those percentages ranked in the 91st and 80th percentiles, respectively, in the nation. And her 2-point percentage of 64.6% was the 15th-best mark in the country out of 2,629 eligible players.

“This was the exact kind of role I was looking for,” Andersen told The Next. “I think every player on our team fits the way we play [because] they make our system fit each of our players.”

That flexibility also appealed to junior Emina Selimovic as she weighed her options after entering the transfer portal after the 2022-23 season.

“There was a lot of leniency from Coach Blake [and] from Coach Carly as far as being able to express myself as a player and not being confined to one role,” Selimovic told The Next. “[They’re] just open to us being creative within our game.”

Combined with the coaching staff’s commitment to player development, the creativity feeds into the core of what the program is about.

“Ultimately, if a kid’s a hard worker, if they’re the right type of human and they’ve got the skill set, we can coach that. We can develop it,” DuDonis said. “If you’re a great 3-point shooter who can put the ball on the floor and everything, does it matter if you’re four inches shorter? I don’t think so.”

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Janelle Brown had two moments in her career where it would’ve been perfectly reasonable to leave Fairfield. The first came after Frager retired; the second came following the 2023-24 season. She’s wrapping up her senior year, and she’ll have her degree.

“I know a lot of people wanted me to enter the portal. They wanted me to try something new. But we made history this year,” Brown said. “I also felt that I was comfortable, being here for four years and being with this coaching staff, too. I didn’t want to leave them.”

If she had entered the portal, she almost assuredly would’ve landed with a Power Five program; profited more off of her name, image and likeness; and joined a team in a more favorable position to win an NCAA Tournament game.

But that’s not how Brown viewed it. She’s seen how the environment at Fairfield primes her for success.

In her sophomore season, she averaged just 3.6 points per game and shot 19% from 3-point range. This year, she averaged 14.1 points per game and shot 45.1% from 3-point range.

“Why try to go somewhere else knowing that you’re not going to get the same people who care about you?” Brown said.

Johnson, who’s been around basketball for longer than anyone else in the program, echoed the point.

“Carly’s really, really good at helping the players. Meghan Andersen was one of the top freshmen in the country, and Janelle Brown was one of the top guards in the country. A lot of credit goes to the kids and all the work they’ve done,” Johnson said, “and a lot of the credit needs to go to Carly in the way she was able to inspire them and create an environment where they can thrive and become their best.”

“Our kids will run through a brick wall for Carly. I firmly believe that in my heart,” Erika Brown told The Next. “We don’t want them to do that, that’s for sure, but they definitely would.”

‘Big time is right here’

As if Fairfield didn’t do enough to validate its legitimacy during the season, the Stags added transfers Huerter and Scott this offseason.

In Huerter’s freshman season at Rutgers, she shot 37.0% from beyond the arc, while Scott’s 1.9 3-pointers made per game at Marshall ranked in the 93rd percentile nationally.

The two portal additions, plus incoming freshmen Julia Karpell, a 5’11 guard, and Cyanne John, a 6’ road runner, will add more scoring options for the Stags.

“I feel like this is the spot that people should want to be at,” Andersen said. “The way that we play and the way our coaches style our game, I think every player will be able to impact in their own way.”

DuDonis is even more direct.

“Big time is right here. This is big time. Fairfield’s big time,” he said. “You look at what we have, you look at our facilities, you look at all the infrastructure in place, this is a big-time school. We’re a top-25 school, so why would you not consider us?”

The upward trend has created its own challenges, too. Fairfield has committed to bulking up its nonconference schedule, hoping to win more games against higher-NET teams and improve its chances of snagging a No. 12 seed or better. That would mean a neutral-site first-round matchup and a more favorable opponent.

With how good the Stags have been, though, teams don’t want to play them. Several teams that they’d made verbal agreements with to play have backed out. Others just want no part of them.

“I was going to ask them if they want to play [us]. But I’m not asking anymore,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma joked to the Associated Press in February. “I changed my mind on that one.”

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Thibault-DuDonis and DuDonis sit at a small table next to a wet bar on the second level of the basketball arena as the cheer team practices on the floor below. They’ve just arrived from two hours of pickup basketball at a nearby middle school. It sounded intense, much like their team’s spring practices have been.

The 33 points still hang over their and their players’ heads.

“If you came in and didn’t know what month it was and saw our workouts, you’d be like, ‘Oh, they’re probably getting ready to play in a couple weeks,’” DuDonis said.

As magical as last season was, the Stags have kept the accelerator down.

“They know the opportunity they have ahead of them because very rarely do you get a team back, a core group back, like this anymore with the portal and graduation,” Thibault-DuDonis added.

It’ll be hard to replicate the success Fairfield achieved in 2023-24. The Stags will enter every game next season with a target on their back and receive each opponent’s best effort. There’s also the possibility of statistical regression and injuries. And Fairfield will need to win some more difficult nonconference games to improve its NCAA Tournament seed; simply playing tougher opponents won’t help much.

Thibault-DuDonis is prepared for these challenges, though. This isn’t supposed to be easy. But it’s hard to miss the excitement that percolates at Fairfield.

“The business of college sports has so many warts and so many issues and things like that, but if you can find the right group of people in the right place, this thing’s a lot of fun,” Johnson said. “I feel very, very fortunate that I did get the opportunity and made the decision to work with this group of people in this situation because it’s rare that you get and can keep a really good group of people at a place that you feel aligned and all those kinds of things.”

Thibault-DuDonis’ formula has worked so far, and she’s confident it will continue to pay dividends.

“When you are able to have a culture and be really clear about your identity and recruit to that, I think you see some pretty special things,” she said. “I think we’ve been really true to ourselves as we’ve gone about this and built this. I just go back to, the people make the place.”

She continued: “We can have the best plan in the world, but if you don’t have great people and great players, it doesn’t really matter.”

Written by Eric Rynston-Lobel

Eric Rynston-Lobel has been a contributor to The Next since August 2022. He covered Northwestern women's basketball extensively in his four years as a student there for WNUR and now works as a sports reporter for the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire.

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