NEW RICHLAND – Carlie Wagner exploded onto the high school basketball scene last season, leading New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva to a 32-1 record and third-place finish in the Class 2A state tournament. She broke state tourney records for single-game (48) and total tournament points (112), records that had been held by Jordan’s Brittany Chambers (now at Kansas State) and Minneapolis South’s Tayler Hill (Ohio State).
As her junior season begins, Wagner already has scored more points than any male or female basketball player in school history. She is being pursued by big-time college coaches, she attracts crowds wherever the Panthers play and her star continues to rise.
So as the 5-foot-10 guard and I talked before Thursday evening’s game against Belle Plaine, my mission was to find out what it’s like to be Carlie Wagner. I phrased the question like this: Looking back to two years ago, how is your life different?
She pondered the question for a second or two. “What’s different? I have more Facebook friends, that’s about the only thing that’s different.”
It’s an amazing thing. Carlie Wagner is as down to earth as the rich black soil that covers southern Minnesota. Did you know that she is the reigning Class 1A high jump state champion, as well as a stellar volleyball player? She is absolutely untouched by her celebrity status and remains a poster child for small-town America.
“I like it that everybody treats me the same,” she said before scoring 32 points with six assists and six steals in limited playing time as the Panthers defeated Belle Plaine 80-37. “I don’t feel any extra pressure. I guess I’m just here to play ball. I’m not worried about outside influences.”
NRHEG, which is No. 2 behind Providence Academy in Minnesota Basketball News’ Class 2A rankings, will meet Chaska (No. 3 in 3A) at 1:15 p.m. in Saturday’s Breakdown Tip Off Classic at Hopkins. Fifteen games will be played in three gyms Saturday, and NRHEG is a major draw.
Wagner is the star of the team, but the Panthers are solid everywhere. Junior Jade Schultz and senior Raelin Schue combined for 26 points and 17 rebounds Thursday and junior Hannah Lundberg had eight rebounds and blocked two shots. Two younger Wagners, eighth-grade twins Maddie and Marnie, scored nine points off the bench.
Schultz made the hustle play of the game in the second half, diving for a loose ball and tipping it back into play as she slid out of bounds. The ball was quickly in Carlie Wagner’s hands for an off-handed layup and 73-35 lead.
“They are all nice kids, they work hard, and they all play their roles,” said NRHEG coach John Schultz. “Some don’t score that much but they don’t care. They know their role is defense, rebounds and that’s what made us effective last year.”
Last year was NRHEG’s first trip to the girls state basketball tournament, and that experience is paying off this season. “It gives them kind of a swagger, a confidence,” Schultz said. “Nothing’s too big for them right now.”
Carlie Wagner said her memories of last year’s state tourney begin with the fans.
“I just loved it when I looked up at the crowd and saw all the fans going absolutely insane,” she said. “I feel like we didn’t have pressure to (win a state title). It was getting a taste of it, we got a foot in the door. I didn’t expect us to win it last year.”
What about this year? “I hope so. I really hope so.”
But nearly a full season remains to be navigated before the 2013 state tournament. The Panthers know that every opponent wants to knock them off, and they remain focused on one step, one game at a time.
“We don’t talk about (returning to state) as much as our fans do,” Wagner said. “We look forward a little bit but we don’t talk about it that much because we have tough games to get through to get there.”
THE ATMOSPHERE THURSDAY NIGHT in the little NRHEG gym was spectacular. The band, under the direction of Tim Siewert, played great tunes from the stage behind one basket. When one of the cheerleaders said to me, “I follow you on Twitter!,” I snapped a photo of the cheerleaders and posted it on Twitter. Then I walked to the other end of the gym, where that cheerleader’s father was looking at the photo on his phone and hollered, “Nice shot of the cheerleaders, John!” What a country.
There were walking tacos, popcorn, a vibrant crowd, youth basketball at halftime and everything else you want in high school athletics. I hadn’t been in the gym for more than 10 minutes before NRHEG athletic director Dan Stork handed me a Diet Coke. While the junior varsity game was being played, Dan found interview space in an office; Carlie walked in wearing a pretty dress and nice shoes, then took off her shoes, relaxed and chuckled as we chatted.
If the Panthers had their names printed on the backs of their jerseys, it could say “Easygoing” on Carlie’s. Even on the court, she is smooth and under control but always hustling, almost effortlessly. If defenses focus too much on her, she will whip passes to her teammates for easy baskets. Her only fault may be that she is too unselfish.
After the game, Carlie walked to her locker to fetch a notebook from her Algebra II class. Her other classes are Anatomy, College Literature, World History, Youth Leadership Service and Computer Aps. (Does she ever sleep? Smiling answer: “Not very often.”)
“I’m really happy,” she said of the game. “I thought we were aggressive, we hit the boards hard, we were scrappy on defense. I guess it was just a really good game. It was a fun game, it was really fun.”
The spotlight on Wagner began glowing brightly at the first practice of her sophomore season when University of Minnesota coach Pam Borton walked into the gym. Carlie told me that Minnesota and Iowa State are at the top of her college list right now, but she is in no hurry to make a decision. Her love of the small-town lifestyle may bode well for Iowa State.
“I just have that country side of me,” she said. “(Iowa State is) not that huge city feel, it’s more the small-town feel I’m used to. The campus is beautiful, it has all the programs I’m looking for.
“I want to stay close to home. I want to keep my options open. I want to wait. I’m waiting for that moment when I just realize what I want. I’m waiting for that moment when I just know. When I’m certain.”
She’s thinking of a career path that involves some form of medicine mixed with sports.
“I want to stick around sports,” she said, smiling. “Who wants to miss all this fun?”
--To see a photo gallery from NRHEG, go to the MSHSL Facebook page.
BY THE NUMBERS
*Schools/teams John has visited: 348
*Miles John has driven: 4,877
(*During the 2012-13 school year)
--Join the MSHSL on Facebook by clicking on the Facebook button on the right side of www.mshsl.org. John Millea is on Twitter @MSHSLjohn