By AJ MAZZOLINI
Four years ago, Mark Carollo became the greatest scorer in Eastern Oregon University history. His 1,631 career points in a Mountaineer jersey — nearly 500 more than any other player — came after an equally remarkable career at Hermiston High School. His coaches recall days when it seemed like nothing short of a hurricane or a rolling blackout could keep the guard from getting to the basket.
The transition from jersey and shorts to slacks and a tie wasn’t one Carollo was expecting to make, at least not so soon.
“I was able to get some of my school paid for and it was an excuse for me to stick around basketball,” said Carollo, who was still close with several of the players who had been underclassmen when he was lighting up scoreboards in years previous.
With a second degree on his resume, Carollo took a job teaching business classes at the high school in La Grande. When the boys’ basketball coach moved away not long after, Carollo didn’t initially bite the lure.
“At first I was a little skeptical. I didn’t think I’d be ready for it,” Carollo admitted. He bounced the idea off his old coaches, family members, anyone who would listen.
Weeks went by before the coach-to-be dropped off an application. He still loved the game, but he wondered if it would be different from the side of the court.
Carollo started his hoops journey on the west side of the Blue Mountains as a gangly but talented youth. By the time he was a senior for the Bulldogs in 2003, he had developed great size for a Class 4A point guard, stretching to within a few hairs of 6-foot-5. His outside game had developed to go with a strong floor presence that helped him set a school record for points in a game — a 43-point outburst in the school’s season-ending playoff loss to Silverton in the spring of 2004.
The game slowed down through Carollo’s piercing blue eyes, said former Hermiston coach Larry Usher who had Carollo as a player for his final two years in Bulldog purple. He could see things start to take shape long before the opposing defenses knew what was happening.
“He could make the right adjustments during the games,” Usher said. “With his knowledge of the game and his size, he’s one of the best I’ve ever coached.
“I know we talked about his interest in getting into coaching (last year), but I never knew about that when he played for me. He was a great student of the game and you could tell he would be great at it if he wanted.”
Isaac Williams had seen Carollo play from the stands when Williams was coaching the La Grande High girls’ team a year earlier. The Bulldogs came to town and Carollo torched the boys’ team for 38 points.
“That was the first time I said ‘We need to get him,’” Williams said. As an assistant coach at EOU after Carollo graduated from Hermiston in 2004, that’s what he did.
Williams would become the head coach as Carollo entered his junior year at the university, and together they added defensive prowess to his hot scoring hand. Carollo also picked up another trait around this time, one that Williams said helps him more than any of the others while coaching teens now.
“He was always able to give me little insights on things that we’d see in the game right away and was good at working with our other players to exploit those,” the coach said. “It’s only fitting now he’d be able to keep passing that along to others.”
When Aaron Mills stepped down as the La Grande coach following a 6-19 season last spring, he left a program in flux. The players weren’t sure when the young coach stepped in to lead tryouts, senior Michael Humber said. The season’s ceiling for success was unpredictable at that point with a fresh system.
Then Humber recognized his coach as the same Mark Carollo he’d seen play at the college in town a few years before. Just minutes with Carollo on the court put Humber’s uncertainty about the season to rest.
“He’s a great basketball player and his skills are still crazy so there’s a lot for us to learn,” said Humber, who, like Carollo, is a shooting guard.
Carollo’s offensive schemes took some time to sink in as the Bulldogs lost their first four games of the season. Senior Seth Madsen said Carollo’s offense is a lot looser than that played under Mills. They play a read-and-react type now, Madsen said, where improvisation is not only allowed, but encouraged. Practices flow more like jazz band than math class.
Since that point in early December, La Grande has ripped off four wins in six games.
“One other big difference that I really enjoy is that Coach Carollo is younger,” Madsen said. “He’s able to relate to us a little bit more. He’s able to understand what we’re going for because it wasn’t so long ago he was doing it too.”
Carollo said he enjoys that as well, but it has taken some time to adjust to play calling instead of play making. He’s had some help from his younger brother Paul, a former rebounding standout at Hermiston and EOU who drops in as a special assistant when he can. But the world of coaching doesn’t have that lived-in feeling yet. Carollo has never had to rely on others so much before, and when the losses started to pile up, no one took it harder than the coach. Competitiveness is a survival instinct for Carollo, like a piranha at feeding time.
He doesn’t want that to disappear entirely, but it does need to be adjusted, he said.
“I’ve been able to kind of step back from that and understand that not all of these kids are going to go on and play college ball,” Carollo said. “But for the seniors, hopefully they’re having a good final year.”
For them to have an enjoyable final year, Carollo said, would give him a successful first year.