BUTTE — From Dillon, to the Big Sky Conference, across the pond and back, Mandi Carver’s journey from Dillon to Fresno, California, has made her the coach she is today.
“She's capable of game strategy and of balancing, and developing young women,” said Fresno State women’s basketball coach Jaime White. “She's a great example. She also has a great temperament; she's very competitive but communicates very clearly. I just think she's wonderful. I think she would be a great head coach; I don't want to play her team if she's a head coach. She is cutthroat.”
As the Montana native prepares for her eighth season at Fresno State, the Bulldogs associate head coach fondly remembers her time playing basketball in Dillon.
“I think that those were such great memories of us coming up all together,” says Carver. “We had such a great group of kids in my age group, We played together from sixth or seventh grade because of that basketball mentality in Dillon, we played all the time and were always in the gym. Those were fun times. I think those were way simpler times than now. There was no social media or AAU. I’m sort of thankful that I missed all that because I think that’s a lot to handle. We just had fun. We could hang out with no phones.”
Carver was born in Great Falls. She moved to Conrad and Bigfork before her family settled down in Dillon when she was around the age of 10. Carver credits the Dillon community for helping her build a foundational love of basketball.
“I think if you go back in history of high school basketball in Dillon, we had some really great guys that were really committed to making basketball a priority for boys and girls,” Carver remembers.
Kevin Engellant, who also coached at Montana Western for 13 years, was Carver’s high school coach for the Beavers. He and the late Craig Finberg played integral roles in growing the game among Dillon’s then-younger generation.
“Those guys did such a great job, when I was a youth, at running camps and making sure we knew how to shoot the basketball correctly with perfect form,” Carver says. “They made it all fun and the gym was accessible. I think that really spread a love for the game. As young kids we got to have success, and once you have success you want to do it more and spend more time working on your game. I’m grateful that they put the time in and made facilities available, and really were teachers of the game. It made a huge impact on me.”
Dillon basketball was very competitive when Carver was growing up, just like it is today. The soon-to-be Division I college basketball standout was not even on the varsity team during her first year with the Beavers.
“I played varsity my sophomore, junior and senior year. My freshman year I was on JV. That’s how talented of a group in Dillon we had at that time,” Carver says.
When she did make varsity her sophomore year, Dillon took home a state title. Carver led the Beavers to two more championship games, but they had to settle for runner-up.
From Dillon, Carver went on to play at Idaho State. By the time she graduated, she was the Bengals’ all-time leader in scoring, blocked shots and rebounding. Consistently crashing the boards — at a rate that no one else in school history had — is a testament to Carver’s work ethic and persistence. During her junior season she was named Big Sky MVP and Big Sky Tournament MVP.
“I think the two things that stand out are, I was the conference MVP and the tournament MVP my junior year,” Carver remembers. “Those stand out just because, that recognition, it feels good after all the hard work you put in and we won. We kind of dominated that year. We had a really good team and I was surrounded by really good players. To have that recognition felt nice.
“My senior year I led the nation in rebounding, which is like a statistical award, but I think it shows what type of player I was. I was determined and hardworking, and I tried to carry that throughout my career, and now as a coach.”
That tenacity has indeed stuck with her to this day.
“She is consistent every day, brings good energy, is innovative, is great for our student athletes,” White says of her associated head coach.
After college, Carver signed a free agency contract with the WNBA’s Detroit Shock in 2002. She made it to the last round of cuts and played in a few games before the team released her.
“I’ve got pictures that make it look like I played many years,” Carver says with a laugh. “I have a picture of Sheryl Swoops guarding me. So it looks really cool. I’m in pictures with Hall-of-Famers. It was so fun.”
She then took her talents overseas for seven seasons from 2002-2009.
“I had some real fantastic coaches in a lot of the places that I played, and I’ve kept in touch with them,” Carver said. “Even now, I have a (former) coach in France and a coach in Portugal that I keep in touch with.”
There was quite an adjustment period upon arriving in Europe. In addition to the obvious language barrier, the style of basketball was fundamentally different. But the coaches were confident that she would adapt.
“The basketball is different. It’s quicker and it’s fast paced,” Carver says. “There’s not typical back-to-the-basket posts. There’s some different rules that were tough to get used to, and they just really believed in me. I think that’s helped me as a coach because of how, maybe, we didn’t speak the same language – literally – and they still had such a strong belief in my ability that it still carried over. Sometimes I don’t speak the same language as these student athletes, but I can convey how much I believe in them. So that really has impacted me in my coaching career.”
Once she made the necessary adjustments, she fit in exceptionally well. Carver took home Latvian League MVP and Swiss League MVP. She was also a two-time all-star in Greece and the Arab Clubs Tournament MVP.
Carver also remembers the fans in Europe, and how they live up to the definition of fanaticism in a very literal sense. She still keeps in touch with a few of them to this day.
“I was playing in Greece. I played for Panathinaikos,” Carver explains. “The soccer club owned the basketball teams – men and women’s – and some other sports, but those fans who were also soccer fans were wild. When we had a rivalry game we had to have riot police in the stands. They had a full-on shield and baton. People had Molotov cocktails and it was unbelievable.”
Following her playing career in Europe – where she played on championship teams in the French League, the Swiss Cup, Adriatic League, Bulgarian League, Latvian League and Arad Club – the next step seemed fairly obvious: coaching.
“I’ve grown up around athletics my whole life. My dad is a coach. He coached wrestling in Dillon, so I’ve been around coaches my whole life,” Carver says. “I wasn’t sure if it was for me, but as my career progressed and I got to be a veteran on some of those teams in Europe I got to mentor some of the younger girls.”
Carver coached for a season at CSU Bakersfield before taking a job as an assistant coach at San Jose State from 2011-13.
“I knew right away I loved it,” she says. “It felt like the natural progression or next step. And I think I played so long that I started to become an extension of my coaches on the floor, and I was able to kind of do that and become that player.”
From there, Carver joined the Fresno State Bulldogs’ coaching staff. Her time coaching and building a network in California made her an obvious fit for Coach White’s staff.
“I kind of met her or knew of her because when I was at Northern Colorado,” White remembers. “We played Bakersfield and she was at Bakersfield. Also she played in the Big Sky, Northern Colorado was in the Big Sky. We never played her, thank goodness but I did know of her prior to that. And then when I interviewed her, she won the job outright. We interviewed three or four people and she was the best one.”
Carver hit the ground running. Her passion, creativity and work ethic helped elevate her into her current role as associate head coach.
“There’s not really such a thing as an offseason or downtime,” Carver says.
“She is capable and she played a long time overseas, but she is a basketball junkie, she loves to watch it, she loves to integrate new things,” White adds. “She does a great job with individual workouts and with physicians; I think she's a great scouter. When she scouts a team, she will do hours and hours of film and really come up with great ways to guard them.”
The positive chemistry and culture instilled by the Bulldogs coaching staff has translated into on-court success, especially recently.
Fresno State has appeared in two Mountain West Conference Tournament championship games during the past two seasons, and secured the regular season title in 2020. Unfortunately, a ticket to the NCAA Tournament has been barely out of reach.
“The last two years, it’s come down to literally one play,” Carver says. “We were in overtime last year and our NET ranking was on the cusp of making the NCAA Tournament last season. This season, we went to the WNIT which only had 32 teams. Typically, in a normal year they invite 64. So to get that 32-team bid was really impressive for us.”
The Bulldogs beat Missouri in the first round but lost to Rice in the Sweet 16. Rice went on to win the WNIT.
“It felt good to kind of end that way, you know, with last season we didn’t get a postseason opportunity,” Carver says. “This year, if you were to talk to any coach or athlete how difficult the season was, just with COVID and testing, masks and being socially distant.
“Our team couldn’t eat a team meal together all season. It really takes a hit, especially on these young kids. We’re asking them to not see their families, not hang out with their friends and not even hang out with each other. It was just so hard on everyone.”
The future certainly seems bright for not just the Bulldogs, but their associate head coach as well.
“I think she's already a head coach,” White says. “She is already doing everything that a head coach needs to and feeling the pressure, and obviously maybe not calling the timeouts but she can create a practice if she needs to. She can do all the things that a head coach is doing; I'm surprised she hasn't got snatched up yet. I think we've been very lucky here that she hasn't but she is very capable in all aspects.”