Going all in
Buying into Wagner's system producing results for Mavs
Taylor Wagner didn’t expect the Colorado Mesa University women’s basketball team to need a new coach this season.
But last April, when Roger Walters unexpectedly resigned, Wagner was ready.
“While I was at Otero (Junior College in La Junta), I followed the RMAC just in case there was a possibility,” he said of coaching turnover. “I kind of had an idea of who was here. I would pick (RMAC coaches’) brains and the coaches would give me information because I was just a junior college coach. It didn’t matter what I knew or didn’t know.
“I knew this was kind of a hidden gem. Coaches always talked about this place and the atmosphere and the facilities.”
And a kicker.
“And then there were great players,” he said.
Two months to the day after Walters resigned, Wagner was hired. The process of getting to know one another began, and it turned out to be an easy sell for the new coach.
“I don’t think there was much of a choice,” senior forward Kelsey Sigl said. “Especially Katrina (Selsor) and I. It’s our senior year, and we’re gonna go all-in or not at all. Everyone, I think, was on the same page. What he teaches and his philosophy was what this program needed, I think.”
Walters and his staff had completed recruiting before his resignation, so Wagner inherited a ready-made roster. He knew only one player, Taylor Rock, who played for him at Otero.
“I kind of told them at the beginning, look at your situation and how you got here,” Wagner said. “A lot of these kids are transfers or came back. Look at your situation; it’s meant to be. I’m a firm believer in looking at all the things, how you ended up getting here and the decisions you made to get here or stay here.”
By going all-in, the Mavericks didn’t blink when Wagner preached conditioning during the fall. They ran shell drills of his dozens of set offensive plays again and again until they became automatic.
“We have the personnel to go four-out, one-in, but when we don’t have something (in transition), we’ve got plenty of sets to go off of,” Sigl said, laughing. “I think everyone’s really bought into it, and it’s clearly paying off.”
If any of them wondered if this system would work, they were convinced the first game of the season, when they beat nationally ranked Simon Fraser University.
Now, nearly seven months after being hired, Wagner has the Mavericks undefeated and ranked fourth in the nation, the highest ranking in school history.
Friday night, the Mavericks, picked to finish third in the RMAC in a vote of the conference coaches before the season began, face the team picked to win it, Metro State, at 5:30 at Brownson Arena. A full house is expected for the game, which, Wagner hopes will bring an electric atmosphere.
“I told the girls (Monday), this is why you play basketball,” he said. “One against two (in the RMAC) adds to it. It’ll be a great game. It’ll be interesting to see how we handle the atmosphere.”
At the halfway point of the conference season, the Mavericks (15-0, 11-0) have a two-game lead on Metro (11-5, 9-2).
With the unbalanced conference schedule, it’s the only meeting of the top two teams in the RMAC, so Friday’s winner would have the tiebreaker advantage. The regular-season champion hosts the RMAC tournament in March.
Sigl, the second-leading scorer in the conference (17.5 points per game) is shooting 57.3 percent from the field. She has hit half of her 3-point attempts (16 of 32), with Sharaya Selsor shooting 46.9 percent (38 of 81).
As a team, the Mavericks shoot 43.4 percent from the field, Metro 42.9.
This game, though, will feature defense. Mesa is the top defensive team in the conference, with opponents shooting only 32.9 percent from the field. Metro is fourth at 36.6 percent.
The teams are not only 1-2 in the standings, but in points allowed. Mesa gives up 50.8 points a game, Metro 55.8.
“They’ll be physical with us, and it’ll be good to see how we respond,” Wagner said. “Their defense is exceptional; we’ll have to be on our ‘A’ game. This is why you play basketball, and I think the girls will respond to it.”
Every once in awhile during practice, evidence of how the Mavericks have adopted Wagner’s philosophy shows.
“There are times they’ll stop practice and huddle up,” Wagner said. “I like that. They need to hear it from different voices than Coach Wagner’s. That’s helped quite a bit with the leadership on this team.”
Another bond is shared by Wagner and his players: their feelings about winning and losing.
“We have girls on this team ... we do not like to lose,” Sigl said. “We’re competitive girls. Coach is the worst of all of us.”
When that was relayed to Wagner, he just grinned and said, “That’s true.”