In the uber-competitive landscape of high school athletics where coaches bark at players for mistakes or rant and rave at officials over a bad call, Carter Fong is a bit of an anomaly.
Walking up and down the sidelines before going down to his familiar crouch and shouting "Titan" on the offensive end, the five-year Dickinson Trinity girls basketball head coach remains even-keeled regardless of the circumstances. The Lady Titans took on his demeanor, as neither he nor his players have ever been called for a technical foul during his 13 years with the program.
"I coached my girls to handle the good calls and the bad calls with grace," Fong said. "They took that to heart; I really appreciate that. ... As a coach, you're always going to make strategic, personnel, or X's and O's decisions that some people will second-guess. I try to get the character questions correct, and I try to do the same in the classroom. I think I've been a steady hand for Trinity."
On Wednesday, March 13, that steady hand announced on social media that he is stepping down from his head coaching position. Taking over the program prior to the 2014-15 season after serving as an assistant to Aysia Barman from 2006-2014, Fong compiled a 76-48 overall record during his five-year tenure as head coach, winning Region 7 championships in 2015 and 2016.
"I had a fork-in-the-road decision to make in terms of, 'Am I going to be a lifetime coach or am I going to open up a different path for myself and my family?' And we are headed down a different path," Fong said. "Many people have the dream of coaching their own children and I respect that; that's just not for me. ... But I've truly enjoyed my time as a coach."
Fong, who will turn 36 years old this summer, had said to friends and loved ones he would "probably hang up my whistle" before he reached 40.
Before the start of the 2018-19 campaign, Fong was presented with a career opportunity at Knights of Columbus Insurance. He says that around Thanksgiving, he felt solid in moving on, a decision that was later cemented in January when he and his wife, Stephanie, learned that they would be expecting their third child, due in September.
In what would be his final season as head coach, Fong guided the Titans to the 14-7 regular-season mark and the No. 3 seed in the Region 7 Tournament. Dickinson Trinity defeated Heart River in the quarterfinals and Bowman County in the semifinals before falling in a valiant effort to favored Hettinger-Scranton in the Region 7 title game.
"I knew it was my last hurrah, and I truly soaked it all in and just really enjoyed it," Fong said. "Regional Championship night, there was just a great crowd on hand. Our girls played so well against an outstanding opponent. I didn't have a whole lot of butterflies. ... I'm just so thankful that we finished on a high note and that the program is in good shape in the short, medium, and long term in terms of great girls coming through the pipeline. The Titans should be competitive for years to come, and I think I'm handing off a good program to someone else who is going to get a great opportunity."
Fong, a Dickinson native, graduated from Dickinson High in 2002 before earning a bachelor's degree in social science education from North Dakota State University in 2006.
Beginning in 2003, Fong got his first coaching gig with the Dickinson Mustang baseball program. He has coached numerous sports, including serving as an assistant coach for the Dickinson Roughriders in 2004 and co-head coach of the Dickinson High boys tennis team from 2005-09, as well as positions with the Dickinson Trinity junior high golf and track teams.
Fong is in his 13th career year as an educator, all of which have been spent at Dickinson Trinity. At the age of 26, he was hired as the school's principal, a role he would serve from 2010 to 2013.
"We appreciate all the different hats that Carter wore at his time at Trinity, including teaching, coaching, advising, administration and junior high athletic director," Dickinson Trinity athletic director Gregg Grinsteinner said. "He did good things in the classroom and on the court, but more importantly, was a better person as a role model to the youth in our town."
Excited about his new opportunity that will begin after the school year ends in June, Fong hasn't ruled out the chance of coming back to education, however in a much different capacity.
"If I return to education, it won't be as a teacher or as a coach; it would be as an administrator. "My batteries need a little bit of a recharge before I'm completely ready to do that, but that certainly is a possibility down the road. I'm just one class away from having superintendent credentials."
While his time with Trinity will be coming to an end, Fong will rely on lessons learned during his formative years through those various roles to guide him in this new journey and challenge he's set to take.
"My skin is a little thicker than it used to be," Fong said. "I still have some sleepless nights as a teacher and coach, but I think because of what I've been through in the classroom and athletics, I'm better able to handle all the curveballs that life might throw at me. And I hope that my girls will say the same one day, that somehow they were made better off by having competed in basketball or having been in my classroom."
With only one senior on the roster during his first season as Titans head coach, Fong led the Titans to 20-7 record and a fourth-place finish in the 2015 state tournament, the highest placement in program history. Despite a campaign riddled with injuries, Dickinson Trinity made it back to state the next season, ending the year with 21-6 mark and a seventh-place finish.
The Titans made to the regional quarterfinals in 2017 and 2018 before their run to regional runner-up this past season. In each of the last two years, Dickinson Trinity bowed out in tight games to the eventual region champion.
When asked what teams, players and memories were most special, Fong pivoted like a post player on the block.
"I don't rank favorites by the place that they finished at the end of the year. In athletics, the only true measure is, 'Did you get the most out of your abilities?' I think our teams did that or approached that every year, and I'm proud of them for that," Fong said. "Also, I'm kind of optimistic that maybe some of my best coaching memories are still to come. I hope that these girls that I've coached and that will have graduated might keep in touch with me and go on to have great careers and families of their own.
"There's a lot more to life than high school athletics. I'm going to explore that path now. My girls who graduate are going to find out the same thing eventually. It's a great experience while you're in the moment, but that's some great memories yet to be made."