When Fairfield women’s basketball head coach Carly Thibault-DuDonis first arrived on campus in the spring of 2022, she had big shoes to fill. Recently retired lead man Joe Frager, who had coached the Stags for 15 years prior and accumulated a program best .566 winning percentage during his tenure, set the bar quite high. It would be forgivable for a first time head coach to need a few years to get their feet under them and try to live up to that standard.

Instead, after just two years at the helm, Thibault-DuDonis has not only cleared the bar, but soared above it. The Stags achieved unforeseen success and national attention during the 2023-24 campaign, as she guided them to a program best 31-2 record and their fifth-ever Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference championship. 

“This place is really special,” Thibault-DuDonis said. “We’re building something that can be a powerhouse in women’s basketball.”

After this year, the Stags are certainly well on their way. Coming off a respectable 15-15 season last year, the team wasted no time in getting out to a hot start this time around, scoring 101 points in their opener against Division III opponent Lehman College and going on the road for an 89-66 win over Lipscomb. 

It was the next two games, however, that Thibault-DuDonis believes showed the true potential of the team. The Stags went 1-1 in back-to-back road contests against Power 5 opponents, losing a nail biter against Vanderbilt but bouncing back for a convincing win against Rutgers.

“It would’ve been really easy for [the Vanderbilt loss] to be a moral victory, like ‘we hung with an SEC team on the road,’” Thibault-DuDonis said, “but they weren’t satisfied, they were disappointed.”

“We didn’t play well at Vanderbilt, we turned the ball over, we fouled too much, we didn’t rebound well,” she continued, “and we addressed those, so when we went and played at Rutgers we excelled in all those categories.”

That continuous hunger and desire to improve became the hallmark of the team, even as their historic winning streak, kicked off by the victory against Rutgers, began to mount. 

With the Stags tearing through conference play and starting to receive more national attention for their efforts, Thibault-DuDonis helped orchestrate a balancing act between relishing the success and maintaining the intensity that got the team to that place to begin with.

“One thing we talked about a lot was enjoying the moment,” she said. “This team is fun to be around, they’re fun to watch, they play with joy… but when it’s time to get back to work, we get back to work. So that’s kind of been our motto, let’s have fun, let’s make this fun, it’s supposed to be, but when it’s time to get back to film and practice, it’s go time and we have to refocus.”

The commitment to hard work paid off in spades as the competition stiffened down the stretch of the season. Despite having seven new players on the roster, the Stags quickly developed into a well-oiled machine built to withstand and overcome several close calls against top conference foes like Siena and Niagara, including in the MAAC Championship game just a few weeks ago. 

Arguably the greatest improvement came from first-year stars Meghan Andersen ‘27 and Kaety L’Amoreaux ‘27. Although both players started much of the season and saw plenty of immediate success, Thibault-DuDonis believes their work ethic and attention to detail helped the duo become even better players by season’s end.

“[Andersen] early on was just an offensive beast… but she wasn’t satisfied, and she knew she had to get better defensively and in rebounding,” Thibault-DuDonis said. “She would pick out time to work on her physicality, and rebounding with physicality, and defending, and those areas of your game that you don’t always see people work on.”

The difference showed up on the stat sheet, as Andersen recorded the majority of her 170 rebounds and team-high 46 blocks during conference play. 

L’Amoreaux, meanwhile, grew into her role as a point guard throughout the year with the help of Thibault-DuDonis’s coaching, increasing her assist rate and lowering her turnover rate as the season progressed.

“If you look at [L’Amoreaux]’s conference stats versus her non-conference stats, you see a huge improvement in her ability to take care of the ball, to make sound and solid decisions, and that was something we were looking for from her.”

The constant improvement of the entire team, even through their constant winning, led the Stags to their aforementioned conference title and a trip to the NCAA Tournament, where they bowed out in the first round in an 89-56 loss to eventual Sweet 16 participant Indiana. 

With all of the vast accomplishments and accolades of the squad, it would have been easy to feel satisfied in spite of the disappointing end to the year. But that isn’t how Thibault-DuDonis and the Stags are treating the loss.

“We’re gonna look back and realize, a little bit removed from the game, how special this season was,” she said, “not just for the people in the room, but for our community and our university. But our goal is to win that game in the tournament, and we’re not where we want to be yet.”

Regardless, the incredible year was still plenty to earn Thibault-DuDonis a three year contract extension that keeps her with the Stags until the 2029-30 season, and she has her eyes set ever higher in an attempt to make Fairfield a true mainstay on the national stage.

“I feel like we are just scratching the surface of what can be done,” she said. “This university clearly values what we do, and we’re just gonna continue to try to pour into our environment and our community, and just keep chipping away at something that can be really special.”

It helps for a special coach to have a special team like the one the Stags sent onto the court every week this winter. There is a seemingly endless list of on-court accomplishments from this past season, but Thibault-DuDonis was quick to praise her team off the court when highlighting her memories of the year.

“Not once did I have to worry about this team caring about each other and bringing joy to one another,” she said. “Every single day we came in to work in practice, or a game, or shootaround, or film, they did it with joy… I can’t express how amazing that is as a coach or a leader.”

Now, Thibault-DuDonis and her team will carry that joy into the summer as they prepare for a sequel performance to their record-breaking season, the bar climbing ever higher.

For more information on Fairfield women’s basketball, visit fairfieldstags.com.      

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