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    Tuesday, November 29, 2022

    Women's basketball's new 'rock star' Carly Thibault-Dudonis

    Fairfield — Not to go all Johnny Cash here, but Carly Thibault-Dudonis qualifies for at least honorary lyrical status in one of The Man In Black's best ballads. Barely 30, Carly TD has crossed the deserts bare, breathed the mountain air, of travel she's had her share.

    This young professional, who entered our corner of creation almost 20 years ago now as an apple-cheeked middle schooler in East Lyme, has been to Ypsilanti and Tallahassee; Minneapolis, Mississippi, Monmouth and Mequon. Indeed, much like Cash's song title, she's been everywhere.

    Everywhere at least until Tuesday, when of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Thibault-Dudonis — wearing red of all things — walked into this one, her next chapter, the Barone Campus Center, introduced as the new head women's basketball coach at Fairfield University.

    "I literally had nothing red to wear," Carly TD was saying off to the side, before she took to the stage for the formal introduction, with the fight song blaring and onlookers even standing in the upper level of the building for a glimpse.

    Thibault-Dudonis said the stylish red blazer she was wearing got shipped to her hotel the night before. Seems wearing red was something of a mortal sin at her last outpost, where any self-respecting Minnesota Golden Gopher would never wear the color sported by that icky school to the east, Wisconsin.

    And then the festivities began. OK. So it's hard for any coach with even a pinch of personality to lose the initial press conference. But Thibault-Dudonis didn't just win this day. Her balanced notes of sincerity, spirituality, service and sentiment rang like church bells.

    "I've had a lot of great days as a Stag and every day is a great day to be a Stag," athletic director Paul Schlickmann said, "but this one just seems to have a little more zip to it."

    And then Schlickmann, describing the athletic department's newest employee, said this: "a sterling reputation for high character and a relentless work ethic. An exceptional basketball pedigree and a Hall of Fame learning tree of mentors. The definition of a scholar athlete with a genuine desire to foster the holistic development of young women. The innate ability to make those around her better. A certified basketball junkie."

    Pause here for reflection. Some people don't merit such praise at their Hall of Fame induction. But if you know Carly Thibault-Dudonis, you just nod your head and await her players to discover the same.

    Speaking of: Some existing Fairfield players must decide whether to stay in the program. They all have their own circumstances and stories. Honestly, though: Where else can they play for a young woman not all that much older than they are who has already earned hosannas belying her age?

    Where else can they play for someone who understands the modern vagaries of playing women's college basketball because she played less than a decade ago?

    Where else can they play for someone whose basketball education includes a WNBA champion (her dad, Mike), a Hall of Famer (Lindsay Whalen) and a Final Four coach (Vic Schaefer)?

    "I can't wait to coach you," Thibault-Dudonis told her players in attendance from the podium. "I can't wait to know you. I can't wait to  learn what makes you tick. I can't wait to be with you on your bad days, be in the foxhole with you, tell you the hard stuff and celebrate the fun stuff. I know you didn't come to Fairfield for me. But I came to Fairfield for you guys. I'll give you everything I got. I'm very grateful for this opportunity to come home to arguably one of the greatest women's basketball states in the country and I'm honored to be your next head coach."

    Full disclosure: Her mom, Nanci, wasn't the only one a little teary after listening to THAT.

    And it was here that those of us who have known Carly TD for most of her life happened upon the happy realization she has the best qualities of her dad — high basketball acumen and an endearing stubbornness — and her mom's infinite human decency and effortless people skills.

    Thibault-Dudonis will win at Fairfield as all the aforementioned attributes become apparent. But next year has a chance to be special if all the kids stay. Fairfield made the NCAA tournament last season and will open a new, 3,500-seat Arena and Convocations Center in November.

    Will the kids stay?

    "I don't think there's any level of expectation for people to buy into something they're not knowledgeable of," said Blake Dudonis, Carly's husband and former women's assistant at Buffalo, before coaching Div. III last year in Minnesota. "But Carly will keep showing up every day. Carly will put herself in front of people and give them a reason to support her. When you get to know her, you get to know the sincerity of what she does."

    Schlickmann may be prophetic sooner and not later about his new hire.

    "The gut feeling of one AD — yes, me," he said, "is that we just got a rock star in the making at this pivotal moment in our history."

    This is the opinion of Day sports columnist Mike DiMauro

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