LA Tech’s softball season is Taylor-made
RUSTON — Josh Taylor is quick to deflect any credit for Louisiana Tech’s almost overnight success in the college softball world this year.
Instead, he points to his coaching staff. He points to his support staff. But most of all, he points to the 22 student-athletes that have “put in the work and made the commitment” to rebuilding a winner in Ruston.
As any good coach should.
But let’s be honest. Winning starts at the top.
Taylor is the fourth Lady Techster softball head coach in the last four years. It’s been a softball coaching carousel for the program since Mark Montgomery led Tech to the Conference USA regular season and tournament titles, 45 wins and an NCAA Regional appearance in 2019.
Montgomery’s success caught the attention of the University of Maryland. The Big Ten school hired him away in September of 2019, starting the domino effect of coaches in Ruston.
Maria Winn Ratliff was hired to replace Montgomery in October of 2019. Ten months later she resigned due to health concerns following a Covid-shortened campaign that saw Tech post an 8-16 record.
Tech alum and assistant coach Bianca Duran was then asked by the administration in September of 2020 to wear the interim title. Duran accepted the challenge, leading Tech to a 22-30 record in 2021.
Finally, in mid-May with its brand-new facility fully constructed and the timing finally right to be in the market for a head softball coach, Louisiana Tech Director of Athletics Eric Wood and Senior Associate AD and Softball Sports Administrator Malcolm Butler began the process.
“We visited with the entire team after the season was over,” said Dr. Wood. “We asked them to talk as a group and send two representatives to sit down and talk to us. We wanted to hear from them what characteristics they wanted in the next head coach. Audrey (Pickett) and Lindsay (Edwards) did a great job of communicating the team’s vision. We spent more than an hour talking with them before we ever made the first phone call.”
“We stood in the team meeting room with all of their eyes on us,” said Butler. “I personally felt a huge sense of responsibility to help get the hire 100 percent right for the sake of those young ladies. This program has been a part of my life for two decades, and those young ladies deserved for us to find the right person to lead them.”
Pickett said there were some anxious times during the weeks following the team meeting and ultimately finding out who the new coach would be.
“There was some anxiety because it had been tough the past two years,” said Pickett. “There is always going to be anxiety in that type of situation. We were allowed to give feedback about all the things we wanted in the next coach. But what if it didn’t happen? We wanted something good to happen to us. We were excited because we had put our trust in Dr. Wood and Malcolm. We trusted that (they) would find the right coach for us.”
“We were all just very anxious,” said fifth-year senior Madie Green. “Who was going to be the new coach? We weren’t sure what was going to happen. In my mind I knew I was coming back, but I wanted the new coach to be good. I wanted them to know what they are talking about. I wanted them to fill all the characteristics we talked to Dr. Wood and Malcolm about.”
While the Conference USA Baseball Championships was underway at JC Love Field at Pat Patterson Park, Wood and Butler spent as much time talking softball as they did watching baseball.
Phone calls. Text messages. And zoom call after zoom call after zoom call.
“We spent a lot of time in what we call the dungeon of JC Love Field,” said Butler, referring to a small concrete-walled room in the bowels of the facility where he and Dr. Wood conducted numerous zoom interviews. “When we weren’t working the baseball tournament, we were on the phone or the computer conducting interviews. It was non-stop.”
And out of what Butler called “a strong pool of candidates” from around the country, a name from the West Coast emerged: Josh Taylor.
“He fit the profile of what we were looking for in a head coach,” said Wood. “We did our homework. We talked to a lot of softball people around the country. We visited with Josh numerous times over zoom and on the phone. We flew him in so we could talk with him in person about our vision for this program. We wanted the hire to be a good fit for both parties. We felt really good about our decision to hire Josh. And just as importantly, we felt strongly he fit the culture at Louisiana Tech.”
Taylor, a University of Nevada alum and member of the school’s athletics hall of fame as a baseball player, accepted the offer in mid-June to become the Lady Techsters head coach, leaving his alma mater after five years as the Wolf Pack’s head coach.
With school out for the summer, Taylor was formally introduced to his new team on June 7 via a zoom call.
“I had the zoom on my computer in the living room, and my dad was in his office with the door open listening,” said Edwards, who is the lone remaining member of the 2019 C-USA title team. “The first thing coach Taylor talked about was mass fungo and practice. I was so excited because the first thing he talked about was softball.
“I was like, ‘Oh, thank God. He is here to coach us.’ My dad started reading off all of this stuff from the internet about him and I was like, ‘Okay, all that sounds good.’ I was excited because he talked about softball and getting to know us. I knew right then that developing us as players was going to be his main priority.”
A month later, the Taylors (Josh and wife Michelle) and the moving vans arrived in Ruston. And by early September, Taylor and his coaching staff were finally able to meet with their players in person.
According to Taylor, the first goal for his new staff – comprised of assistant coaches Chelsea Cohen and Shelby Hiers and graduate manager Tyler Krobetzky – was to build trust.
And according to the players, that didn’t take long.
“It was our first in-person meeting with him,” said Pickett. “It was what he told us and what he talked about. How he coaches. How he was going to treat us like adults. He expected the same respect in return. That is when I really bought in and began to trust him.”
“It took me a little bit, but I feel like it was easy,” said Edwards. “He is not fake about anything. On the field he is going to be a coach who is going to be demanding. Once he got comfortable with us, I relaxed and was like ‘this is how I am used to be coaching in the past.’ He is real and straight forward. He is going to tell you the truth. He is easy to trust. I know he respects me. I know he respects others on the team. Having mutual respect is a big thing.”
Little did anyone know – if they are completely honest – that the trust and the relationships and the coaching and the hard work would have such an immediate impact with on-the-field results. But it didn’t come without its share of adversity.
“It was rough at first,” said Taylor. “We won two fall games, both against junior colleges. We didn’t win a single fall game against a DI. We got destroyed by Arkansas. We got destroyed by Tulsa. But you started to see players improve throughout the fall. That was giving us some hope.
“We were trying to give them freedom to learn and to fail (in the fall). The more failures we had in the fall – it sounds odd – the better it was for us as coaches. It allowed us the opportunity coach them hard in the fall games and practices.”
When the preseason Conference USA Coaches Poll was announced in early February, Louisiana Tech was not only picked to finish seventh out of 12 teams, but the Lady Techsters didn’t have a single player on the 16-person all-league team. It was obvious that the rest of the league didn’t have high hopes for this year’s Tech team.
And no one could blame them.
However, what those other coaches didn’t know was a group of 22 student athletes in Ruston had recaptured something very special.
“Coming back has been the best (decision) I could have possibly made,” said Pickett, who sports a 23-5 record and ranks in the top 10 in the country in wins. “I finally love softball again, and I love playing again.”
“Softball is the place I go to have fun and get confidence,” said Edwards, who has been a mainstay in the middle of the Tech lineup. “I am excited about it again. It’s just fun. Everybody is there for the same reason. Everybody is on the same page and wants to be there as a team.”
Taylor agrees that the players mentality and passion for the game has been the biggest difference in wins and losses.
“The biggest difference is their mentality and their love for the game,” said Taylor. “They are having fun. Those are two pivotal things in playing the sport. I believe you have to play free and loose. And they saw at the beginning how tight they were, and they had no success. And they began to loosen up and that’s when you saw their talent flourish more. We just had to bring that out in them.”
With one week left in the regular season, Louisiana Tech is where no one – NO ONE – thought they would be nine months ago. The Lady Techsters are in first place in the top heavy Conference USA standings and in control of their own destiny.
Tech’s 26-game turnaround this year (from 8 games under .500 in 2021 to 18 games over .500 in 2022) is the eighth best in the country to this point of the season. It has opened a lot of people’s eyes, including Taylor’s.
“Did I think we would be 35-17 and in the hunt (for a conference title) this year? I can’t say I did,” said Taylor. “Not when you look at last year’s record and last year’s stats and all of those things. But so many of those things can be fixed. It wasn’t necessarily a talent issue.”
A challenging three-game C-USA series against Southern Miss looms this weekend at Dr. Billy Bundrick Field. Three wins and the Lady Techsters would be regular season conference champions.
However, instead of focusing on the big picture, Taylor said he wants his players to stay focused and play with the same passion and excitement that has helped them win 20 of their last 25 games, including eight straight league games.
“We try to build confidence in the things we do,” said Taylor. “We don’t try to overwhelm them with anything we do. We simplify it for them. We create an environment where they are allowed to do things. Where they are allowed to make mistakes. They are allowed to have a voice. They are allowed to be themselves. They are allowed to have fun. That’s all we want them to continue to do.”
So far that has been a recipe for success in the Josh Taylor-era in Ruston.
“I love that guy,” said Green, who is batting .313 with a team-high 10 home runs. “He is so fun to play for. He is just very knowledgeable about the game. I feel like I have learned so much this year. He is just a fun coach. Even though on game days he tries to make sure we are having fun. Every time I go up to bat, he will be like ‘Alright, have fun.’ He is just a really, really fun coach to play for.”
And winning is fun.
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