Taylor-made for Mesa
Even-keeled Wagner has Mavs among the nation's elite
Taylor Wagner was like a lot of kids who loved basketball while growing up.
He had his favorite team, the Utah Jazz. He had his favorite players, including John Stockton, whom he would imitate when he was shooting baskets.
Wagner grew up in Sandy, Utah, and he and his brother and friends would play on a makeshift court at a neighbor’s house.
“Our next-door neighbor had a full court,” the first-year Colorado Mesa University women’s basketball coach said. “One basket was a 10-footer, and one was a 9-footer and there was a barn next to it. On one side was sheep, the other side was cows. If you missed, you were either in cow crap or sheep crap.”
Wagner learned not to miss.
At least a couple of times a week, he joins the Mavericks in a 3-point shooting contest before practice. He also plays in one of the team’s favorite shooting drills, where the players divide into two teams, shooting from stations around the floor, from one corner to the other. Every player must make a shot before anyone can shoot from the next spot on the floor.
He’s got a smooth stroke from the 3-point line, honed from wanting to avoid climbing into the corral to wash off the basketball.
When the neighborhood kids weren’t playing outside, though, Wagner would often be in his basement working on his game in a much different way. He didn’t know it at the time, but he was laying the groundwork for his chosen profession.
“We used to have a Nerf hoop in my basement,” said Wagner, who has guided the Mavericks to a 31-1 record and a spot in the NCAA Division II Elite Eight. Mesa plays Dowling (N.Y.) College at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday in San Antonio. “I would actually play a whole game. I would keep stats, usually the Utah Jazz versus the Lakers. I enjoyed that part. I would choreograph the whole game.”
He didn’t know anyone knew about those games — “I would hide the papers in my sock drawer of all the stats” — until his wedding. That’s when one of his four older brothers, Spencer, during a toast, told the story of young Taylor, the sixth of eight children, and his Nerf championship series games.
“Oh, yeah, Stockton ... I was everybody,” said Wagner, now 36. “I was the entire team and the defenders. Usually it went seven games, but the Jazz always seemed like they won.”
After graduating from Alta High School, Wagner went to Otero Junior College in La Junta, where he was a two-time all-region player, leading the Rattlers in scoring. He’s ninth on the all-time scoring list at Otero.
He then signed with Alaska-Anchorage, and shooting next to the barn paid off there: Wagner is No. 8 all-time in 3-point shooting percentage, 14th in 3-pointers made and sixth in free-throw shooting.
The Mavericks’ defensive philosophies were honed during Wagner’s playing days. He was the Seawolves’ defensive player of the year both years he was at Anchorage, plus the team captain and an honorable mention all-conference player.
Fiercely competitive on the floor, but even-keeled off, it was easy for the players to accept their new coach.
Houston Reed, the men’s coach at Otero and one of Wagner’s good friends, relayed a story from their playing days together for the Rattlers.
“We drove all the way to Hobbs, New Mexico, nine hours one way, the day of the game,” he said. “That’s how you do it in junior college. We get there 45 minutes before the game, and he goes out — and I can’t remember how many 3s it was, I think it was seven or eight — he gets off the bus and bangs out seven or eight. We get back on the people-mover, and we’re driving home, he’s asleep 30 minutes later. I remember thinking, ‘Man, that’s cold-blooded.’ “
A business major, Wagner decided in college he wanted to give coaching a try before trying corporate life.
“I don’t know what else I would do,” he said. “Maybe by default I’d be a coach. I knew in college I wanted to give it a try and see if I’d be any good at it. If I wasn’t, I’d have a business degree and see if that was worth anything.”
He became an assistant coach for the Seawolves’ men’s team, then returned to La Junta, where he was an assistant for both the men’s and women’s basketball teams. In eight seasons as the Otero women’s head coach, he went 187-63, 88-12 at home, and his 2012 team that went to the NJCAA national tournament had the best record in school history, 33-3.
All of that came in to play during his interview at CMU, where he was the unanimous choice to replace Roger Walters.
“There wasn’t one single person on that committee that didn’t have him number one,” said CMU men’s coach Jim Heaps, who chaired the search committee. “It was everything. We felt if he could recruit to La Junta, he could recruit to Grand Junction. We loved the idea of where he was from. He just reeked of integrity and doing things the right way. He was the clear choice, and it was a heck of a pool. We couldn’t have gone wrong with any of the four. You spend any time around him at all, you could tell he was the real deal.”
His mild-mannered, almost shy personality belies his competitive nature, and that resonated with the search committee, said Jane Quimby.
Quimby, who starred for Grand Junction High School and is 11th on the all-time women’s scoring list at the University of Utah, has become one of the Mavericks’ biggest fans this season. The former FBI agent now teaches criminal justice at Colorado Mesa, and when Walters resigned last spring, she asked CMU President Tim Foster if she could be part of the hiring process.
“He is a very understated guy,” Quimby said. “We were asking him what his vision was for the program, and he said, ‘I’m looking at the tools you have in place here, the facilities, the support from the institution, the president, and I see no reason why we can’t be RMAC champions, Shootout champions, regional champions and going to the national championship every year.’ That’s what he said, and we all kind of said, ‘Oh, yeah, OK,’ and he said, ‘I want to put banners up.’ And he said it in Taylor’s way, not a cocky way. He said, ‘I just don’t see any reason we can’t be doing that. That’s my goal, that’s my mission, and that’s what I want to do here, and I want to be here a long time.’ “
That sold Quimby, who hasn’t missed a home game this season, and she told her husband after the Mavericks won the South Central Region that they would be going to San Antonio. Their flight leaves early Tuesday morning.
“The things that come to mind when I look at him is intensity, passion and class,” she said. “What more can you ask for in a coach?”
All of the candidates met with players who were on campus last summer, and Heaps said the women’s choice, too, was Wagner.
“They were really worried. They felt like they had something special,” Heaps said. “We told them we’re going to bring in the best person we can bring in. From day one, I’ve never doubted he was the best guy for it.”
After the Mavericks came within four points of an undefeated regular season and placing three players on the all-conference first team, junior Sharaya Selsor talked about Wagner, the RMAC coach of the year, making such a difference.
“How lucky am I to get one more year to play for him?” she said.
Her sister, Katrina, another first-team all-conference selection and the RMAC Shootout MVP, said she wished she had one, two, even three more years to play for Wagner because of how he made her a better player in only a few months.
That’s what he does, Reed said.
“He had girls as freshmen who weren’t very good or were role players,” said Reed, who played at Olathe High School and grew up watching Mesa games. “Every year he’d have one or two players who the previous year never really helped them on game nights. When they’re sophomores, he’d max out their ability and now they’re contributing. He’s so good at taking his personnel’s talent and putting them in the right position on the floor to be successful.
“As long as he’s there, the (Colorado Mesa) women will win.”