When Aspen Garrison was in elementary school, she was already aware of her mother’s coaching prowess.
Garrison, the daughter of Western Washington University women’s basketball coach Carmen Dolfo, dreamed of playing for the Vikings.
But, despite being recruited by Dolfo and the Western coaching staff as she concluded her prep career at Sehome High School, Garrison, a 6-foot-3 forward, committed to Saint Mary’s College of California.
“My goal was always to play for my mom at Western; that was my forever dream,” Garrison said. “But, coming out of high school, both my parents and I both agreed that I needed to try something new.”
After two seasons at Saint Mary’s and a coaching change that influenced Garrison to transfer, she returned home to Bellingham — this time, as a Viking.
“It’s great to have her here,” Dolfo said. “It’s great for me; I get to watch her play. I’ve missed so many games of hers through the years. I get to see all her games now.”
‘The mom in the stands’
Dolfo, in her 33rd season as Western’s head coach, never coached any of her three children in basketball.
Kennedy, the eldest, didn’t pursue the sport and Grey, the youngest, was coached by Western men’s basketball head coach Tony Dominguez during the club season. Grey, who graduated from Sehome in 2023, is now a freshman on the Oregon State University men’s basketball team.
“I would have loved for her to coach me, but honestly, it was the best thing for me that she was the mom in the stands,” Garrison said.
Garrison, like her siblings, forged her own path. She attended basketball camps at Western with her middle and high school teams, but that was the closest Dolfo and Garrison would come to forming a player-coach relationship.
Dolfo said she had discussed recruiting Garrison with Steve Card, Western’s athletics director at the time, and had assurances that her daughter would be treated “like any other student-athlete.”
Garrison’s dream to play for Western when she was younger was primarily driven by time spent around the program — being in the locker room before and after games, traveling with the team and watching from the seats of Carver Gym.
At Sehome, Garrison was a First-Team All-Northwest Conference selection as a junior in 2019–20, averaging 14 points and eight rebounds per game. She played just two games as a senior in 2020–21 as a result of the COVID-shortened basketball season.
In two seasons at Saint Mary’s, Garrison played in 62 games and made 11 starts, improving in nearly every statistical category as a sophomore. During the 2022–23 season, she averaged 3.7 points, 2.5 rebounds and 0.6 blocks in just under 13 minutes per game.
On school breaks, Garrison returned to Bellingham, played with the Vikings outside of regular team hours and made friends with many of the Western players during that time.
Midway through Garrison’s sophomore season, Saint Mary’s women’s basketball head coach Paul Thomas was placed on administrative leave by the university as a result of an “ongoing investigation” before he was fired in late January 2023. Saint Mary’s still has not released details about the probe.
Former California State University, Long Beach, head coach Jeff Cammon was hired to replace Thomas, and Cammon’s system simply didn’t suit Garrison’s style of play.
That’s when Garrison began to consider coming home.
“Instead of building a new two years with [another coach], I wanted to go back home and continue it with my family and in my hometown,” Garrison said.
Much of the conversation about a possible transfer between Western and Garrison went through assistant coach Stacey Turrell because Dolfo said she wanted to remain Garrison’s mom and support her decision.
Now the pair has forged a separate player-coach relationship for the first time.
“We really try not to talk about it too much off the floor, and she doesn’t want to,” Dolfo said. “I think she kind of wants me to be her mom off the floor, which, you know, I appreciate.”
Dolfo added that she spoke with the team before the transfer was finalized to quell any concerns of favoritism that could be assumed from the coach’s daughter joining the roster. The team was “really supportive of that,” Dolfo said, especially because they needed another post player alongside senior Brooke Walling.
Garrison said the transition, at least with the other players on the team, was easy due to the friendships she had already established. The only thing Garrison said she was nervous about was whether she and Dolfo could keep their on-court relationship separate from their personal one.
Being one of Dolfo’s players has strengthened Garrison’s respect for her mother.
“I always saw my mom changing her players’ lives, not only making them better basketball players,” Garrison said. “It’s been so much fun to play for her, just in seeing a different side of her almost, and how impactful she is — even more impactful than I thought [with] off-the-court stuff and just building people up.”
That effect has gone both ways, as Dolfo realized this is the only time in her storied career she will coach a family member.
“It’s so fun having her home and having her around and being part of our everyday,” Dolfo said. “I look at it as I’m so fortunate and lucky to be able to get this little bit of extra time with her.”
Through 15 games this season, Garrison is averaging 10.2 points, 5 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and 1.1 steals per game — a huge jump from her sophomore numbers at Saint Mary’s.
She has scored double digits in six games while being a force defensively, swatting a career-high five shots in a 63-43 win over MSU Moorhead on Nov. 24, 2023. The Vikings, collectively, are off to a 12-3 start with their sights set on another NCAA Division II tournament run.
“[Garrison] really has a good sense of the game and she can make things happen when she’s on the floor,” Dolfo said. “She’s not fearful, and I think she brings us energy.”