A New Frontier

A New Frontier

Coach Joe Frager cuts down the net following the Stags’ MAAC Championship win.

Coach Joe Frager cuts down the net following the Stags’ MAAC Championship win.

Head Coach Joe Frager’s final season with the Stags goes into the books as arguably the best in the history of Fairfield Women’s Basketball.

It’s a lot of work to do what we do. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of stress at times. but we’ve got a great staff, a great group of young women, and we got it done.

— Coach Joe Frager

March 12, 2020. Fresh off of a 72-56 win over Siena in the quarterfinals of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Championship, Fairfield Women’s Basketball came off the court at Jim Whelan Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, N.J., expecting to begin preparations for the next day’s semifinal contest. Instead, the Stags were met with the sobering reality that they had played the final game of their season — and, in fact, the last game played to completion in all of college basketball — as the MAAC, the NCAA, and much of the country began their response to the emerging Covid-19 pandemic.

Exactly two years later, on March 12, 2022, the Stags were back at Boardwalk Hall watching the final seconds tick down on a 73-68 victory over Manhattan. Only this time around, it was not the last game of the campaign, the tears shed were only in triumph and celebration, and the new frontier that lay ahead for the Stags was the team’s first trip to the NCAA Tournament in more than two decades.

"We’ve been together for a long time and we’ve been through a lot," said MAAC Player of the Year and Championship MVP Lou Lopez Senechal ’22 in the postgame press conference. “Obviously, it wasn’t easy to have the tournament shut down like that, but we knew that we had to stick together and that one day we would get it, and that’s what we did today. We made history.”

Fairfield’s 2021-22 season was set to be historic before it began, as Head Coach Joe Frager announced three weeks prior to tip-off that his 15th season at the helm of the Stags would be his last. “After much consideration, I have decided to retire at the conclusion of the 2021-22 season,” he said in a statement. “As always, I  am totally committed to maximizing the potential of this year’s team and helping us attain our goals together. I believe in this group of young women, and I look forward to tackling the challenges that we will face this season.”

In the non-conference portion of the season, those challenges included a grueling schedule featuring visits to Big Ten foes Indiana and Rutgers, a trip to Orlando to meet a Florida Gulf Coast team that went on to win an NCAA Tournament game, and a clash with eventual Atlantic 10 Champion UMass. The result was an average 3-5 record heading into MAAC play, but also a team brimming with confidence that it had sparred with the be stand come out better for it.

The Stags celebrate after the final horn in Atlantic City; the 2022 MAAC Champions;Rachel Hakes ’21, M’22 and Coach Frager embrace at center court.

The Stags celebrate after the final horn in Atlantic City; the 2022 MAAC Champions; Rachel Hakes ’21, M’22 and Coach Frager embrace at center court.

And as the calendar turned to the league slate, the wins came with it. A victory over perennial power Marist, the first win over Quinnipiac in Hamden in eight years, and a convincing 17-point triumph over Iona capped the month of December. January’s tests included a two-game sweep of the MAAC’s infamous Buffalo trip — back-to-back wins at Niagara and Canisius.

The Stags reached 7-0 in the MAAC before a rare misstep at Siena in mid-January, but the detour proved slight as Fairfield stormed through the back half of the conferences chedule. This run featured a 75-72 nail-biter against Niagara and overtime contests with Canisius and Quinnipiac, all ending with the same result: Stags win.

The victories — 12 in a row to cap an unprecedented 19-1 MAAC record — bore plenty of spoils. Frager was named the MAAC Coach of the Year, Lopez Senechal scored 20 or more points in 12 league games on her way to MAAC Player of the Year honors, and the duo of Rachel Hakes ’21, M’22 and Callie Cavanaugh ’21 joined her as All-MAA Chonorees. But the most important accolade of all was the top seed in the upcoming MAAC Tournament, an event that the Stags had not won since the 1997-98 campaign. Down in Atlantic City, three more wins separated the Stags from their first taste of March Madness in 21 years, and first MAAC Championship in 24 seasons. First up was a motivated Iona team that took advantage of foul trouble for Lopez Senechal to stay in striking distance in the first half. But in the absence of their leading scorer, the Stags looked to another veteran to shoulder the load as Hakes — one of the nation’s top distributors with 5.5 assists per game — took on the scoring mantle to the tune of 26 points to power Fairfield into the semi-finals.

Coach Joe Frager and Haker- one of the nation’s top distributors with 5.5 assists per game

Coach Joe Frager and Haker- one of the nation’s top distributors with 5.5 assists per game

Just as MAAC opponents struggled to slow down the Stags, neither a day off nor an early 11 a.m. tip-off could derail Fairfield in its next outing. A 21-2 run in the first half set the Stags in motion, and they led by as many as 42 points in a 75-38 thrashing of Niagara to set up Saturday’s championship game against Manhattan.

Now just 40 minutes from their goal, the Stags and Jaspers had the back-and-forth clash that fans expect from a MAAC Championship contest. Manhattan opened up a 17-8 lead in the first quarter and maintained a lead into the final minute of the third before a Cavanaugh jumper knotted the score at 47-47 heading into the fourth frame. The Stags pounced in the final stanza, building a double-digit lead as Cavanaugh, Sydney Lowery M’22, and Andrea Hernangomez ’22 poured in key baskets, and Sam Lewis ’20, M’22 drained the final free throws to cap off a 73-68 championship triumph.

“I’m so proud of these kids,” Frager said, donning a MAAC Championship cap and fresh off of cutting down the nets at Boardwalk Hall. “I’ve said from the beginning that I just wanted this for them. Whether we won today or didn’t, I couldn’t be disappointed in this group with what they did throughout the entire season. But the fact that they were able to come through this way is just a great capper. It’s a lot of work to do what we do. It’s a lot of fun, it’s a lot of stress at times. But we’ve got a great staff, a great group of young women, and we got it done.”

The Stags went on to the NCAA Tournament, drawing the daunting and unenviable task of challenging Big XII Champion Texas in Austin. But despite the first-round loss to the host Longhorns, the 2021-22 campaign makes its way into the record books as arguably the best in the history of Fairfield Women’s Basketball. And for Frager, who hangs up his whistle with 454 wins over 24 seasons — not to mention a Division II National Championship from his days at Southern Connecticut — the tears shed are again only in triumph and celebration. And the new frontier? “Family and fishing.” l

A New Coach

CarlyThibaultDudonis holding a ball and doing stags sign

Carly Thibault-DuDonis has been named the head coach of the Fairfield University Women’s Basketball program

Carly Thibault-DuDonis has been named the head coach of the Fairfield University Women’s Basketball program. Thibault-DuDonis most recently served as the associate head coach and recruiting coordinator at the University of Minnesota. She becomes the third Division I head coach in Fairfield program history.

In four seasons at Minnesota, Thibault-DuDonis brought three nationally ranked recruiting classes to Minnesota— including a current incoming class that ranks 10th in the nation — and the first two five-star recruits in program history. Thibault-DuDonis was the team’s defensive coordinator.

Prior to her time at Minnesota, she was a part of back-to-back NCAA appearances by Mississippi State University, as a member of Head Coach Vic Schaefer’s staff; she also worked under Head Coach Tory Verdi at Eastern Michigan University, during which time the Eagles made a pair of WNI Tappearances as well as a trip to the 2015Mid-American Conference Championship Game.

Thibault-DuDonis began her collegiate career at Florida State University as director of Recruiting Operations in the 2013-14 season.

A standout at East Lyme High School in Connecticut, Thibault-DuDonis played collegiately at Monmouth University. She earned All-Northeast Conference Third Team honors and was named the NEC Scholar-Athlete of the Year as a senior. Her father Mike Thibault is currently the head coach of the WNBA’s Washington Mystics. The three-time WNBA Coach of the Year previously coached the Connecticut Sun and has been an assistant coach in the NBA for the Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls, and Milwaukee Bucks.

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Alumni Profile | Kelly (Young) Falcone '10

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SuSTEMability

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