As each era goes by, it seems that things get simultaneously easier and more complicated for the next generation. The world of sports is no exception.
While the modern day has allowed for a wide array of opportunities for student-athletes, the continued advances in technology and shifts in recruitment strategy have created ever-increasing expectations both on and off the court. There are, of course, the normal tensions of college life and academics, but student-athletes also face the pressure to excel at their sport, maintain a responsible social media presence, and stay healthy physically, emotionally, and socially. There are a lot of plates to keep spinning. It’s also safe to say that no team was untouched by the obstacles that came with the pandemic this past year.
Our experiences allow us to be guides for those who come along after us, and Taylor Filzen ’12, director of Volleyball Operations for the University of Dayton, is doing that in an extraordinary way. With experience as both a former collegiate volleyball player and employee in the Northwestern athletics department, Filzen is now walking alongside a team of student-athletes who are trying to make their way in life. Not only is Taylor serving as the liaison to the administration, equipment, marketing, athletic communications, and facilities staff at Dayton, but she also mentors a team of women.
Taylor’s faith in Jesus allows her to foster a sense of authenticity that makes way for deeper relationships between her and the team, which can be something unique and life-giving in a secular college environment. In her interactions with the women on her team, there’s something remarkable about how Taylor places value on connection and contentment over performance without sacrificing athletic excellence. The work she’s doing is good and beautiful, and the impact she’s having on athletes and teams will ripple into the generations to come.
At the time of this interview, the Flyers were wrapping up an amazing season with a trip to the NCAA Division I Volleyball Tournament in Omaha, Nebraska. We had the opportunity to connect with Taylor in the midst of the year's final matches to hear more about what she does and why she does it. Best of luck to Taylor and her team as the tournament kicks off on Thursday, December 2!
Tell us about your role as Director of Volleyball Operations.
I like to say that in my role, I get to work in every area of our volleyball program apart from coaching on-court and the recruiting process of prospective student-athletes. Day-to-day logistics, scheduling, academics, working with our head coach on special projects, video breakdown, statistical analysis, and external media are all things that I get to have my hand in, and I love the variety!
Did you have any key formative experiences that inspired your bent toward volleyball, developing a team, and where you are today?
Athletics has always been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I grew up as a coach’s kid with my mom coaching collegiate women’s basketball for much of my life. Being around her teams and all my “big sisters,” traveling with them, experiencing championships and tough losses, and being around that lifestyle was something that opened my eyes to both the power of college athletics, as well as the relationships that can be formed there.
I was also given the amazing opportunity to be a collegiate student athlete at Northwestern by Coach Beth Wilmeth and her staff, and I will forever be grateful for that experience! As someone who was not a high level athlete, having the opportunity to be a part of those teams and learn about service and leadership through volleyball, all while growing in my faith in community, really grew my love for athletics and all it entails.
My path within athletics continued as I began my career with internships in collegiate athletics with the Upper Midwest Athletic Conference (UMAC) and Corey Borchardt ’02. My first job after graduation was at a very familiar place: UNW. Starting my post-college life as the Coordinator of Athletic Communication and Administration at Northwestern allowed me to see how much I loved working in this industry. I began to realize that I specifically wanted to work with a team, and I began to explore Director of Operations positions. The University of Dayton position was open, I had a connection with the current staff, and I made it through a virtual interview process. A little over a week after accepting the job, I was driving out to Dayton, Ohio, for the first time to be a Flyer!
What does a typical day in your life look like?
My day-to-day life looks different every day in season and out of season, practice days versus match days, and being home versus on the road, and I love that!
No matter what the day looks like, it involves a lot of logistics, knocking out tasks, and working with numerous people! If we are at home, I spend time connecting pieces and working on anything and everything for upcoming weeks. On the road, things look different. Home match days are awesome because of the energy and anticipation, and away matches include coffee runs, time with our staff and team, and getting things ready for the match(es). Out of season, one of the things I love is the ability to work on special projects or things we may not have time to do in season.
What are the relationships like between members of the team?
One of the things I absolutely love about our team and program is how much our student-athletes love being together and being a part of a team. It isn’t always easy, but they are committed to working through issues that may arise with maturity and grace. They show up every day and give their all mentally, emotionally, and physically, and it is incredibly rewarding to see them achieve success.
What kinds of challenges do these athletes face on a regular basis?
The demands, pressures, and expectations of today’s student-athletes are unbelievable.
Before they step on campus as a student, they have typically been playing volleyball at a very high level for many years. They have been recruited and pursued by collegiate coaches. They are expected to maintain an academic load in and out of season and do well in the classroom, while also juggling the intense schedule of a Division I student-athlete.
They also navigate normal college student life and the pressures that go along with that in today’s society. Social media presence is huge. How they represent themselves, their teams, their schools, and their families is on display for anyone to see.
One of the biggest challenges I see is, ultimately, they want to be the best they can be at everything. They are perfectionists who want to achieve, and they are their greatest critics.
What has it been like to come alongside these women and foster mental and emotional development alongside athletic prowess?
I think one of the most amazing aspects of being a part of a program where I get to engage with our players on a daily basis is seeing their growth. Being able to see a player who wasn’t highly recruited play at the Division I level, work incredibly hard, earn a scholarship, play in three NCAA Tournaments, and leave the program as an award winner is incredible. Being able to witness those moments and that growth reminds me all over again why I do what I do.
One of the biggest things that I try to do with our women is just be there for them. These are 18- to 22-yearolds who are figuring life out and maturing, and I hope that I can be someone that is reliable, there for whatever they need, and ready to challenge them and help them grow. Much like in families, there are awesome moments, and there are definitely hard moments. In the seven years I have spent at Dayton, our women have taught me way more than I have taught them.
What was your educational and athletic experience like at UNW?
My experience at Northwestern was extremely formative and prepared me very well for life after college. It was well-rounded and a close-knit community with people that are still a part of my life today. The education I received definitely readied me for the workforce, and I even went on to get my master’s degree in Organizational Leadership while working at UNW.
Being a student-athlete was something that completely flew by—the days were long and the practices were hard, but those seasons were so short. I feel extremely blessed to have been able to be a part of those teams, led by Coach Wilmeth and her staff, play in two NCAA Tournaments, and ultimately learn about faith and sport and playing for an “Audience of One.”
How has your faith impacted your role and how you approach connecting with student-athletes?
My faith impacts my role in every interaction with our student-athletes. I pray my heart would be that I can love them, serve them, and be there for them in a way that shows Christ’s love. Ultimately, I know that is where true peace, hope, and contentment can be found, and that is not contingent on how well they play on a given night, how they do on a test, or what they may feel like their image is on a certain day.
I also believe that my faith has allowed me a certain sense of “realness.” Every year I am in my role, I realize I am learning to value the relationships with our staff and our team in a unique way. I can do life with them, be real about struggles, and that allows them to hopefully feel comfortable to share and in return connect in a deeper way.
What’s been your proudest moment as Director of Volleyball Operations?
There have been so many moments. The joy of winning conference championships and going to the NCAA Tournament, seeing a player reach their dreams of being an All-American, the tributes and memories on each Senior Day, and seeing a student-athlete graduate after working as hard as she could to get through tough classes have all been proud moments for me.
One of my favorite memories of all time will be from this past season, in the NCAA Tournament “bubble,” when we were able to spend time with our team in an extended setting. The laughter, candid moments, and togetherness after a tough year and after so much resiliency and commitment from our team will be with me forever.
Do you have any advice or insights you’d offer to UNW students or alumni?
My advice would be to take advantage of every opportunity available—from volunteering to internships to being involved in something outside of your comfort zone. You never know how the Lord will use those times to shape and stir something in your heart.