HELENA – A smile grew across the face of Carlito Labarda Jr. as he noticed the changing leaves to his left and Mount Helena City Park to his right.
It’s the type of scene Labarda, a former Helenan and Carroll College assistant basketball coach, described to his Eastern Oregon men’s basketball team for nearly a week.
“We live in La Grande, so it’s similar, but Helena is more picturesque,” Labarda said on the afternoon of Oct. 22. “Outdoors you have Mt. Helena and it’s beautiful here. It’s not too much of a difference, but the city is a little bigger and they’re enjoying themselves.”
Labarda was on his way to the Lewis and Clark Library, having come from the movie theater, while the Mountaineers killed time before tipoff against Carroll College. It was a much-anticipated matchup between the Mountaineers and Fighting Saints, a contest Labarda hinted at when he left Carroll for EOU in 2017.
One absentee from Monday’s contest was Labarda’s former boss, Carson Cunningham, who left Carroll for the University of the Incarnate Word this offseason.
“I’m kind of glad I’m not coaching against Carson, because he’s kind of crazy. All kidding aside, it would have been great for Carson to be here. He gave me my start, we’re good friends, so that would have been fun,” said Labarda. “But Kurt Paulson is also a good friend of mine, and they couldn’t have picked a better guy. He’s a Carroll guy, played here back in 2006 and was on one of the best teams Carroll has ever had. He knows the city, he knows how to recruit, and, like I said, you couldn’t have asked for a better person to take that job, and I’m happy for him.”
Paulson and the Saints are expected to contend for another Frontier Conference championship, something Cunningham and Labarda grew accustomed to during their four years together in Helena. Carroll posted a 79-45 record in that span, earning regular-season and tournament championships, while appearing in consecutive quarterfinals at the NAIA national tournament.
While Labarda is already a season in with his new program, Cunningham makes his Cardinal debut Nov. 6 at Texas Tech. Labarda says the two are still in constant communication, close enough friends to understand the other’s oddities.
“Oh yeah, we hang up on each other about once a week. We don’t even say bye, that’s how close we are, when we’ve heard enough we just hang up on each other,” laughed Labarda. “We keep in touch about once a week, I keep in touch with his family. We’ve known each other for about 20 years. His first kid took his first steps at my mom’s house, so that’s how close we are. We keep in touch all the time, and I’m happy for him.”
Labarda credits Cunningham, a friend of more than two decades dating back to their time together at Purdue, where Labarda was a student assistant and the latter a standout guard, with improving his coaching skills.
Eastern Oregon posted a 21-8 record in Labarda’s inaugural season, falling in the conference tournament. Now the second-year head coach is locked in on matching the success he’s had at Carroll, and elsewhere, by leading the Mountaineers to new heights.
“Wherever I’ve went I’ve been fortunate enough to win, whether I was a Purdue manager or student assistant, at Carroll, in high school, I’m kind of used to winning,” he said, “so it’s a challenge to me to get to that elite spot to where we get to the national tournament, hopefully we win the league someday. As a coach you challenge yourself to do the best you can.
“Obviously we’re not going to settle for a mediocre season. I’m trying to win big games, I’m trying to win the league, I’m trying to win the national championship, maybe not now, but in the near future. That’s what I’ve been working toward, so I have high hopes, maybe they’re just dreams, but as a coach, that’s what you’re trying to get to.”
It’s clear Carroll and Helena will always have a place in Labarda’s heart, and despite being all in at Eastern Oregon, his love for Purdue will never fade. There’s no better time to be a Boilermaker fan, after the football program dismantled then-No. 2 Ohio State 49-20 on Oct. 20.
“Oh my gosh. They lost early in the season to a no-name team and for them to beat Ohio State, it was glorious. It was probably the biggest win since the Drew Brees era. I’m not kidding. Boiler Nation is electrifying right now,” said Labarda. “The atmosphere is great. I wish I was in West Lafayette (Indiana) just to feel the atmosphere. They’re getting better. (Purdue coach Jeff Brohm) is doing a really good job, and it’s always good to see Boiler football doing well because we haven’t done well since the Drew Brees era. Yes, I was there when Drew Brees was playing, and that was probably the last time we were good in football, but hopefully we can build on the game from Saturday.”
Only the Boilermakers could make Labarda’s already large grin grow even larger.