There’s a reason they call the west side of the Smith Fieldhouse “The Dark Side” during men’s volleyball practice.
A huge curtain separates the Dark Side from the varsity practice, both physically and metaphorically. The athletes who labor there can be in a pretty dark place emotionally. Most are walk-ons with little or no chance of playing in an actual match.
It can be very discouraging, but that’s where BYU senior Taylor Richards started his college volleyball journey.
Richards has started the past four matches at libero for the No. 9 Cougars, who host No. 8 Stanford on Thursday. The very fact that he is standing on the court at the Smith Fieldhouse in front of 4,000 BYU fans and across the net from some of the best volleyball players in the nation is a lesson in the importance of perseverance.
He was pretty much cut from the team. He was at times a manager or a practice player, doing anything he could to stay connected to the program even though he was often lost or forgotten on the Dark Side.
Volleyball has always been a part of Richards’ life. His father, Dave, played for BYU and was a member of Team USA from 1978-80. He is currently an assistant volleyball coach at Dixie State. Taylor’s mother, Lori, also played at BYU and was a long-time volleyball coach in Utah at the club and college level (she passed away in 2012).
Taylor’s sisters both played college volleyball. Lauren Richards Evans was a setter at BYU (2001-05) and Kristin Richards Hildebrand was the national Gatorade Player of the Year at Timpanogos High School in 2003, eventually starring at Stanford and for Team USA.
So naturally, Taylor Richards loved football.
He would bring a football to his sisters’ numerous tournaments, playing catch with whoever he could. In eighth grade – after breaking his arm for the third time playing football – his mother told him he was done with the sport. Taylor went to his brother Andrew’s volleyball practice in a cast. He started trying to pass the volleyball and decided that would be his new passion.
Taylor played club volleyball at Timpanogos – boys volleyball is not a sanctioned high school sports in Utah – and then all summer on the club circuit as well. At 6-foot-2, he realized his ticket to the next level would be as a libero or a setter and practiced long hours trying to perfect his skills.
He grayshirted at BYU in the winter of 2012 before serving a mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Brazil. When he returned, he was involved in a semester-long tryout for one roster spot with four other players, including Leo Durkin. The coach at the time, Chris McGown, decided to keep Durkin, who would go on to be a three-year starter at setter.
When Shawn Olmstead took over the men’s program in 2015, he said he didn’t really know where Richards fit into the program.
Richards wasn’t on the BYU roster so he played for the Utah Valley University club team to get reps.
“I didn’t want to give up on my dream,” he said.
In July 2016, Olmstead called Richards to tell him there was a roster spot available. Omstead wanted Richards to come in immediately to train with the team.
“It was one of the greatest days of my life,” Richards said. “Getting that phone call from Shawn, I remember literally dropping to my knees, I was so grateful. I was at my house alone and I was so overwhelmed with gratitude.”
Richards played sparingly over the next two seasons. In 2017, he got in against McKendree and Cal Baptist. In 2018, he played in just one set against USC.
In today’s college athletic landscape, many players would have given up or transferred elsewhere.
“One my favorite quotes is from Thomas Edison,” Richards said. “‘Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close to success they were when they gave up.’ I never wanted to quit. For two years I wasn’t getting any playing time and recognition. That quote really kept me going because I knew how close to success I actually was. The thought of me actually potentially starting one day kept me working hard and going on this path.”
Richards said the support from his family and friends has been “overwhelming” and credited his wife, Hilary, as the reason his dream never died.
“She’s the one,” he said. “I wouldn’t be playing volleyball here if I wasn’t married to someone so supportive. Every day she has to go home to an empty house until I get there about 6:30. I leave early in the morning. She’s been amazing throughout this whole thing.”
In four starts this season, Richards has produced 34 digs with eight reception errors and added 10 assists. He had eight digs in a 3-1 win against No. 14 USC and seven in last week’s 3-1 victory against Grand Canyon.
Richards also knows last year’s starting libero, sophomore Zach Hendrickson, is still competing hard to take his place.
That’s the way Olmstead likes it.
“I love what Taylor is doing,” Olmstead said. “I love the energy he brings and the good vibe he has with the guys. Each of these guys (Richards and Hendrickson), we want to be able to measure every position the same way. We want to keep doing that and have them battling all the way through.”
Richards will graduate in May with a major in Portuguese and a minor in communications. Hilary still has some classes to finish at BYU but the plan is to eventually move to California and find jobs, though Richards said he’s going to train to become a professional beach volleyball player and pursue that dream. Former Cougar Casey Patterson, the former BYU volleyball player who is a star on the AVP circuit and in the Olympics, finally followed him back on Instagram, Richards said with a grin.
Richards is proof that any dream can be realized, even if you have to overcome dark thoughts on the Dark Side.
“It’s crazy, the amount of emotional instability you feel while you’re over there,” Richards said. “Some days you have the work ethic and the mindset to do everything you can so when you’re name is called, you can go be awesome when they are playing sixes. Some days after not being called over, you wonder if they even know who you are. You want to just go home.
“It was a long, long Dark Side experience but it paid off. Luckily I had more days where I had a good mindset vs. just wanting to go home. It doesn’t mean I can stop working hard. I’ve got a long way to go and a lot of things where I can improve. I put in a lot of hard work for the shot that I got.”