NCAA's active kills leader 'good to go' after withdrawing from school to take on depression
Taylor Louis first spotted the stat on Instagram. Her 1,534 career kills make her the leader in that category among active players heading into the 2018 NCAA volleyball season.
But the Iowa senior almost wasn't the active leader. Louis, in fact, almost wasn't active.
A turbulent year battling depression forced Louis to withdraw from school late last fall. Only recently did she open up to those close to her about how paralyzed she felt once the season concluded.
"There's an image with any student-athlete," the outside hitter from Evanston, Illinois, says. "You can't be sad; you can't be human; you have to be superhuman. You're not supposed to be depressed if you're playing volleyball. You're always supposed to be in high spirits, but there's so much work that goes into what's behind what people see."
Outside, she shined.
In her first year of Big Ten volleyball after transferring from Marquette, the 6-foot-3 Louis morphed into the team's wonder woman, leading the Hawkeyes in points and kills.
Inside, she struggled.
"I was not impressed with how I was performing academically or with volleyball," she says. "My numbers might say otherwise, but I've always been hard on myself, and I know what I can bring to the table. I didn't do my best."
It's not a feeling she's used to having. Her mom, Karren Brown, describes a drama-free kid who dabbled in basketball and soccer before being introduced to volleyball later than many of her peers. The game was fun even when her skills were mediocre. Her memory from her first club tryout:
"Take an approach for us," her coach directed during tryouts.
"What's an approach?" she asked.
Louis readily recalls one of her first kills. "I don't remember who we were playing or the date or anything," she says, "but I remember the really good feeling. I was like, 'Ooooooh! This is addicting!' "
Who knew then what it would lead to.
Brown routinely preached about the doors a college degree would open. Louis knew she'd go but was never sure of the exact path. Then Bond Shymansky, the Marquette coach, spotted her at a club tournament in suburban Chicago. He described her as "the definition of raw. She was a big fish who had the physical makeup that you'd be interested in for our game because she was tall and could jump. The longer I watched her, the more I could see she had this great internal drive."
Louis never played for Shymansky at Marquette because after her initial redshirt season, he took the job at his alma mater, Iowa. She blossomed as a sophomore, earning AVCA All-American honorable-mention honors in addition to being named to the Big East first team. Only then did she entertain the thought of playing internationally after college.
"I knew I needed a bigger challenge," she says.
Louis also was drawn to Iowa, where Shymansky was making waves. The Hawkeyes had finished their first winning season since 2000 in 2016 and set attendance marks in Carver-Hawkeye Arena.
Shymansky kept tabs on Louis at Marquette and was thrilled at the prospect of having her there. "I knew she could be one of the best hitters in the Big Ten," he says. "If you're one of the best hitters in the Big Ten, you're one of the best in the nation."
But transitioning to a new college and Big Ten volleyball proved daunting and started her spiral. Louis played all 33 matches, recording double-digit kills in 23 of them, but she fell into a depression. It wasn't an entirely new feeling. The colder months and shorter days had produced bouts of sadness in the past, but she would always muddle through.
This time she couldn't. "I need help," she told Shymansky. "I can't do this by myself." She also added, "I don't know if I'm going to be coming back."
Shymansky told her to take care of herself first. "She was super open with me," he says, granting her the space to figure out her next move.
Brown was stunned when her daughter brought her up to speed. "I thought this was everything to you," she wanted to scream -- only she didn't. She refrained from being judgmental and instead laid out options.
"I realized that it was better for her to take a break than a fall," she says.
For six weeks that ate up winter break, Louis retreated inside herself at home in Evanston. She continued appointments with a therapist and binged on "House" and "Dexter." She filled her journal with the gamut of emotions inside her and indulged in her mom's mac and cheese and pot roast.
"It was a true vacation without the beaches," she says. "I needed that."
Four days before spring semester, Louis returned to campus, unconvinced she would stay and unsure if she'd wear a Hawkeyes uniform again.
Not considering the hurdles in front of her.
Shymansky laid out her challenges in a meeting. To regain eligibility after earning no credits during the fall semester, Louis had to tackle a spring academic load of 18 credits, and commit to twice-a-week volleyball workouts.
"Can I really do this?" she wondered.
Three weeks in, the doubts resurfaced. "I felt really distant from everyone, more vulnerable than I usually do. I felt like all eyes were on me," she says.
Frigid mornings when the average temperature was in the teens made it hard to pull herself out of bed. Working out on her own, because her slate of classes didn't match up with a single teammate's, was lonely.
Louis wasn't afraid to ask for support.
"I cried to my mom every day for a week straight," she says. "I never felt alone, and that was the most important piece of the whole process. The coaches helped me with holding me accountable for schoolwork. Tutors and tutoring assistants helped me stay on top of my work even though it was challenging most days to do so."
"It was almost impossible that she'd get through the spring, and yet she did," Shymansky says. "Explaining when she needs help has taken her a lot of time and trust. Now she's at the point that it's a part of her internal drive."
Louis' grades weren't spectacular, but "passing," she says, "was the hardest thing I've had to do in my entire life -- 18 credits going through depression."
She had to get through 13 more to be eligible for the season. She took classes both summer sessions -- almost a breeze, she says, given her excessive load in the spring.
"I made it!" she exclaimed a few days after pulling a B-minus in an online business class and a C-plus in Spanish II. "I'm good to go."
Better yet, Louis says, she's "refreshed."
I'm proud of myself for what I've gotten myself through.Taylor Louis
"I've conquered all these things," she says. "Even going into the cold months, I feel like I have a handle on my mental state. I know what the signs of depression are and can catch them right away."
Louis embraces getting out of bed every morning in the rented house where she lives alone (she scrambled to find lodging after deciding to return to school just four days before classes resumed). She unwinds by writing in her journal, treats herself to manicures regularly and celebrates taking "just 12 credits" this fall.
"Even my room is clean for more than a day," she says with a laugh. She is expected to graduate on time with a bachelor's in communication studies with a digital media focus.
As for her senior year of volleyball, Louis downplays being the active leader in career kills.
"They didn't count mistakes. They didn't count attempts ... "
Her mother, who learned the news on Twitter, looks at it a tad differently.
"I started crying," Brown says, choking up. "When you are a single mom, you go through things. You do what you have to do, but you go through days where you wish you didn't have to do it that way. When you see something like that, you realize, 'I did something right.' "
Louis would rather focus on Iowa seeking to advance to the NCAA tournament after an 18-15 season in 2017 when the Hawkeyes didn't receive a bid.
"I definitely can say I'm proud of myself for what I've gotten myself through," she says. "Of course, I got support and help, but I did the work. I feel better than I have in a really long time. This is the perfect time to be feeling that way, too. I'm in a really good spot right now."