Taylor took unlikely road to first head coaching gig

Joshua Taylor is the first to acknowledge that his ascension to a Division I volleyball coach has been far from ordinary.

Taylor, who graduated from Punahou in 2011 and starred as an outside hitter for both the Buffanblu and then collegiately at Pepperdine, is in his second season in charge of the University of Missouri women's program.

"It's a very unconventional route to becoming a head coach and I feel insanely fortunate to be where I'm at," said Taylor, 28.

It has been a whirlwind for Taylor since he completed a decorated collegiate career at Pepperdine, including AVCA All-American first team honors as a senior in 2015. A year later, in the summer of 2016, was when Taylor's path toward coaching began.

But it wasn't one that he took alone.

Taylor, as well as his then-girlfriend, now-wife, Molly Kreklow, were both in California at the time, training with the U.S. men's and women's national teams, respectively, in the hopes of earning a roster spot for the Rio Olympics.

"She got cut right before the Olympics, so we both kind of decided that obviously we were both done playing that summer — before the men's and women's teams went to Rio — and we went home to Hawaii, we spent some time with my family. We went to Minnesota, spent some time with her family and then we went and coached a camp at Missouri, where my wife played and her uncle (Wayne Kreklow) was the head coach," Taylor said.

At the conclusion of the camp, Wayne Kreklow extended an invitation to the pair to work as graduate assistants that fall. They accepted his offer, but two months into the season, each signed with a professional team: Molly in Italy, Taylor in the Middle East.

"We both went and played half-a-season and once that was over, her uncle called us and said, ‘Hey, my full-time assistant and volunteer assistant are both leaving. After seeing you guys these past few months as graduate assistants, we'd like to you guys to apply,' and at that point in life, Molly and I knew that we were going to get married, we were fortunate to find one another and we were getting a little bit tired of being overseas," Taylor said.

"It's a hard lifestyle. Eight months out of the year you're in a different country and it's a great experience, but you're working. It's a grind and I think we were both kind of ready to just be back home and it was a really unique opportunity that we felt we couldn't pass up and to be honest with you, those two months of being graduate assistants is when we fell in love with coaching," he explained. "We didn't realize we'd love it, but working with the girls and realizing that we could really be involved with the game without having to play it was really unique and we were really, really fortunate that opportunity came up."

Taylor was hired an assistant and Molly, a former Mizzou setter who earned AVCA First Team All-American and SEC Player of the Year in 2013, was tabbed as the volunteer assistant.

"Up until July of 2019 I was the assistant and recruiting coordinator and then three weeks before the season began in 2019, Wayne decided to retire," Taylor said.

He and his wife were both blindsided by Kreklow's decision to step down after 19 seasons.

"Everyone thinks that it was something that was like planned, like we were playing a chess game or something, but the day he told us we had no idea this was gonna happen and my first thought was, ‘So what does that mean? Are we hiring somebody new? If that new head coach comes in, are we going to be able to stay with that head coach?,' " Taylor pondered.

After Taylor met with the administration, it was decided that he would take over as head coach on an interim basis for the 2019 season.

Twenty-two matches into the season, the interim tag was removed and Taylor signed a five-year contract to become the seventh head coach in program history on Nov. 14 of last year.

"Yeah, it's wild," Taylor chuckled.

He added, "Not many people get the opportunity to prove themselves as head coach before getting hired as one and I had that opportunity and I made sure to take advantage of it and I was extremely grateful for that opportunity."

Taylor was humbled by his hiring, to be sure, but also fully cognizant of the shoes he was about to step into. After all, Wayne Kreklow retired with a winning percentage north of .700 over nearly two decades of seasons. The Tigers had never qualified for the NCAA Tournament before Kreklow arrived in 2000; they made it in all but four of his seasons in charge, including two Sweet 16 appearances and an Elite Eight.

"He was an incredible head coach and he did some really nice things with the program," Taylor said of Kreklow, who was selected as SEC Coach of the Year in both 2013 and 2016.

"Another unconventional piece of this is that not many young coaches get to take over a program that is successful, right? Normally, it's coming into a rebuild, but Missouri, we're kind of expected to be in the top 25 and we're expected to make the NCAA Tournament every year, so I feel incredibly fortunate for that and now it's just about building upon that. I don't want to stay where we're at, I want to constantly improve on all the success that Wayne brought to the program."

Despite some challenges, Mizzou went 22–8 in Taylor's first year, including a 13-5 mark in SEC play. The Tigers reached the second round of the NCAA Tournament, their 16th all-time appearance in the field.

"It was tough because when I got hired we weren't allowed to hire a second full-time assistant, so Molly and I were the only full-time coaches — which is not normal for a Power-5 program — and so it was a lot of work and it was stressful, but I think looking back, I'm happy with those 22 wins and hindsight is 20/20 always, right, so it was a fantastic experience and I'm really proud of the success that the girls had, as well as Molly and I, so it was a really unique experience and one of the tougher years of my life, but it's something that I'll always be incredibly grateful for," Taylor said.

Taylor's sophomore season in charge, however, has been anything but the usual. The COVID-19 pandemic has limited the Tigers to just eight matches this fall (the NCAA pushed back its championship to the fall of next year). Taylor is appreciative of the time that he does have with his team, without a doubt, but it certainly comes with its share of challenges.

"It's kind of a daily thing, to be honest with you. You're putting out different fires every day and with COVID it presents so many challenges that we've never faced before and we're just trying to keep our girls safe," Taylor said.

"I'm glad we get to play this fall, because it would be tough to just go four months of just practice, right? You'd get tired of beating up on your teammates and you'd want to beat up on someone different, so I'm happy we're getting to play different opponents and these matches count toward NCAA Tournament seeding, so it's going to be a long season — and that's something that we're really conscious of, is load management, as well as mental health, right? — I mean, it's an eight-month season and our girls are only used to a four, so we're doubling the time that we're in-season and when you're in-season you're a different person."

He continued, "You're going about life differently and it's a lot on you mentally and physically, so we're trying to be cognizant of that. We're constantly checking in on our girls to make sure they're doing well and also as a staff. I'm making sure to check in on my staff, too, because we're working really hard … so it's a grind, but in the end I'm just grateful that we can play this fall, for sure."

Taylor praised school and SEC officials for their swift implementation of proper safety protocols for all student-athletes, coaches and support staff.

"The challenges that are presented from this are different and unfortunately there's no handbook on how to coach through a pandemic, so there's nothing really to reference and it's tough, but they've done a fantastic job. I feel safe being in the gym and our girls feel safe competing and that's a huge step," he said. "One thing I'm tired of is getting that q-tip stuck up my nose three times a week — I could go without that — but there's a lot of different challenges, but safety is the number one priority and we're doing a good job of maintaining that and at the same time, finding ways to get better on the court."

The Tigers (2-0), the No. 7 team in the AVCA Top 15 poll, opened their abbreviated fall season with a couple of wins at Alabama last week to set-up a big showdown against third-ranked Kentucky (2-0) next week.

"They're ranked number three for a reason," Taylor said of the Wildcats, who are coming off two wins over Tennessee last week. "They play really good volleyball and they've got some amazing athletes, so we're looking forward to playing some really high level volleyball and I think we've got a good plan going forward. We're going to train and there's a couple girls that we'd really like to slow down, but in the end we gotta play our style of volleyball and we gotta play disciplined and it's going to be a battle, so we're pretty excited about it."

Taylor spoke with as much excitement when asked about his own playing days at Punahou. He recalled watching a video about the history of Buffanblu volleyball as a freshman.

"It was incredible. You put on that jersey and you realize how many greats have come before you who have set the standard for what it means to be a Buffanblu volleyball player; it's incredibly humbling and being a part of that is something that I'll never forget," he explained.

Taylor did not get to play in matches as a freshman due to redshirting rules, but he helped Punahou claim back-to-back state championships as a sophomore and junior in 2009 and 2010, respectively. Although a hand injury forced him to miss his senior senior, he looks back fondly on the entire experience of prep sports.

"My sophomore and junior year, when we won the state championship alongside some of my best friends, that was just one of those memorable moments and again, I think we were good at volleyball, but the lessons that we were learning from (Punahou coach) Rick Tune really kind of prepared us more for life," Taylor said.

Taylor said Tune's influence was key in his development as a player and a person. Tune, a standout middle blocker during his days at the University of Hawaii, finished out his collegiate career at Pepperdine, where Taylor eventually landed as well.

"Technically, he taught me a lot of things that really prepared me to go play in college and really allowed me to go start my freshman year in college — when it came to my feet, when I'm taking my approach, when I'm going to attack, blocking, I mean, receiving serve, everything — he just equipped me incredibly well on the court and in life as well and the relationship that I had with him on and off the court was something that was special and something that really allowed me to be successful on and off the court, so it's definitely something I'll always be grateful for and those four years being part of the varsity team with him as the head coach were incredibly special," Taylor explained.

But it wasn't just Taylor's experience as a student-athlete that makes him beam with pride when talking about his alma mater.

"It's really, really hard to put into words, to be honest with you, because I look back on those years and I feel so incredibly fortunate to have been able to attend Punahou and learn all of the things that I did — mostly about life, to be honest with you — because just the way they educate prepares you so greatly and equips you for everything you're going to be experiencing once you leave high school and the people there are absolutely incredible — the students, the professors, the coaches, everything — and yeah, I could probably write a book on how much I loved being able to attend Punahou," he said.

Taylor also credits his former club coach with Kuikahi, Joshua Suapaia for setting him on the right path.

"He was my club coach from 15s year all the way through 18s year and he started me off playing volleyball, he was my very first volleyball coach. I was really, really bad when I first started playing," Taylor admits. "He played a pretty huge role in me developing as a volleyball player and we became family and he and Rick Tune were just instrumental in my development."

Although his volleyball travels have taken his across much of the globe, Taylor remains rooted in the fact that he is a local boy, at heart.

"Something that I'm really grateful for was growing up in Hawaii. I remember growing up and it was something that was said often, was that Hawaii is a melting pot of cultures and man, I can't even express to you how grateful I am for having been around so many different ethnicities and cultures and really being immersed in that, because it's not something that, to be honest with you, you experience in Missouri."

He went on, "So I think the biggest thing that goes along with that is just ‘Aloha,' and not many people even know what that word means, but I try to explain to them that it's not only a word, it's a way of life and living that love is just something that is unique to the Islands. … We've got kind people out here, for sure, but aloha is one of those things that I'm trying to spread wherever I go because it's so unique to the world, so it definitely shaped who I am and I will always be the proudest person in the world saying I was born and raised in the Islands."

Reach Kalani Takase at k[email protected].



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