Carollo brings Tigers back to state tournament
Getting young athletes to buy in to a new head coach can be quite a battle.
Thankfully, the La Grande’s boys basketball program didn’t have to worry about that. And now, the hours of instruction through three seasons is showing.
When Mark Carollo was hired as the Tigers head coach in 2011 he brought instant credibility with him. Carollo was a four-year player at Eastern Oregon University put on nightly shows for the athletes that he would later be coaching in Quinn Coliseum.
He led the Mountaineers in scoring in all four seasons, and is the current scoring leader in the program’s history. Carollo totaled 1,631 points in 107 games, including a 43-point performance against Evergreen State, which stands as the school record for points in a single game.
Having all that happen just blocks from La Grande High School meant the athletes he would be coaching were sitting in the stands.
They saw the success Carollo had on the court. It bought Carollo the trust of the team.
“It was great to see him play,” senior Tyson Wicklander said. “It made it a little easier to take him at his word. We knew that he knew what he was talking about.
“All we had to do was listen and buy in.”
Carollo’s time at EOU also allowed him to see the rebuilding process from a players’ perspective. Eastern Oregon went 4-22 his freshman season. The Mountaineers improved to 17-11 his sophomore year, then 23-8 his junior season, and finally 26-6 and a trip to the national tournament in his senior season.
“Nobody likes losing,” Carollo said. “That’s really the biggest thing I took away from that experience. It took some patience and hard work. I learned to look at the big picture.”
La Grande wasn’t in a rebuilding process very long.
Prior to Carollo’s arrival, the Tigers made three straight trips to Corvallis from 2008-10. The Tigers went two and out in 2008 and finished fifth in 2009. La Grande’s best finish was in 2010, bringing home a second-place trophy after falling to Central, 56-47.
The following season La Grande went 6-20 overall. In Carollo’s first year, the Tigers went 10-12, and finished 9-16 last season.
It didn’t help that Carollo basically started from scratch in his second season. La Grande had graduated nearly the whole varsity roster in 2012.
“That was tough,” Carollo said. “You try to get in and build something, and the next year it’s almost all gone.”
But the Tigers returned a lot of talent the following season. It came down to court experience, and it took La Grande some time to adjust to playing better competition with a team without many varsity minutes.
“We went through a lot of growing pains in that first season. The guys stuck with it, though. They believed in what the coaching staff was doing.”
That helped transform the program in just three seasons. The seniors on this season’s team — Wicklander, Troy Williams and Brandon Cedarholm — won just six games in their freshman season. This year, they lost a total of five en route to a fifth-place finish at state.
“It helped to have the same coach for three seasons,” Wicklander said. “This was also a very good group of guys to play with. Everyone was unselfish with the ball. No one cared who scored. It was a team effort every night.”
La Grande finished the season 20-5 overall, and ran off a streak of 16 straight wins during the season. Despite sharing the Greater Oregon League regular season crown with Ontario, the team ended the season with all its goals met.
“We all wanted to get to Corvallis,” Wicklander said. “Without coach Carollo guiding us and pushing us, I don’t know if we would have made it this far.
“It’s an awesome accomplishment for everyone, and a great way to end my basketball career.”
It’s an ending that Carollo, a Hermiston graduate, never had.
His basketball teams never made it to the final site, but he did make one state tournament appearance in tennis.
Carollo and his brother Paul competed in the Class 4A doubles championship bracket, advancing to the second round.
“Yes, it’s great to get to the final site in basketball,” Carollo said with a grin.
And, like any competitor, Carollo is already thinking about next season.
“We’ve got some great kids coming back,” Carollo said. “There are also some young kids coming up. Although, our seniors will be missed.”