Carlie’s still blossoming basketball career chronicled at U of M
WAGNERVILLE — Gopher mailboxes have become a popular item in the area thanks to Carlie Wagner, recently featured in this article in the University of Minnesota’s Ski-U-Mah magazine. (Submitted photo)
By JUSTINE BUERKLE
University of Minnesota
“Last person out turns the lights off. There’s nobody left in town when the tournament comes around.”
That line, reminiscent of the Hickory Huskers’ following in “Hoosiers,” is how Carlie Wagner’s father described the mass exodus from the New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva area as people traveled to support his daughter’s Panthers team in the Minnesota state basketball tournament, including back-to-back championship wins.
Wagner grew up in a tight-knit community — the type of community where headlines sometimes mention her on a first-name basis. She has been referred to as a “local heroine” in the newspaper. Now a Golden Gopher, she continues to enjoy the support that followed her from her small Minnesota town to the state’s biggest city and flagship university.
From the driveway…
Well before Wagner was born, the soil was tilled for her to put down roots in New Richland. Her parents, Jane and Darren, grew up in the area and met during high school study hall. The community was an ideal place for them to raise their five children after they got married. “It’s just a huge family,” Jane said. “Everybody knows everybody by name. We’re all friends.”
Much of NRHEG is farmland, and most residents who are not farmers still have big yards. In town, unlocked cars and kids in the grocery store by themselves are common sights. Favorite activities include hunting, going to the lake, eating at the restaurants in town or going on an excursion to a nearby city. And, of course, basketball. Neither of Wagner’s parents played the sport, but her brothers and cousins loved it, and it became one of her main pastimes. She began playing basketball on her brothers’ small toy hoop. Soon, the family driveway served as her first court. “She was two years old dribbling around the driveway,” Jane said. “By three she was practically going between her legs.”
Mounted above the Wagners’ garage door is the backboard and rim where Carlie worked on her shot as she got older. “That’s where it started,” Wagner said. “That’s where I cried and got bossed around by my brothers and pushed down and never won a game and hated basketball because of it. But then a few years went by and I started catching up to them and started beating them.”
Even though older brothers Danny and Alex cut her no slack, Darren saw his oldest daughter go back to the driveway, tears, scratches and all. “She didn’t like being beat up,” he said. “She was a fighter. She wouldn’t give up. She was just feisty.”
Organized basketball in New Richland begins in third grade. That’s when Wagner began playing under John Schultz, who would coach her through high school and whose daughter became Carlie’s close friend. Schultz said he once offered his sixth grade basketball players $1 for each left-handed layup they made during games. (“We did that for a while, but it got to be too expensive.”) During that time, one opposing coach yelled to his team about the right-handed Wagner: “You have to take her left side away! She’s all left-handed!”
To the high school gym…
As a young hoopster, Wagner looked up to the NRHEG Panthers’ Alison Anderson, and said she still gets nervous around her. In front of packed bleachers, Anderson set what was then the school’s career scoring record and earned all-state recognition. “She was the superstar when I was little,” Wagner said. “I would freak out around her. She had all the records and stuff. She went to SDSU and I went to a couple of her games and got to watch her. I just thought she was the coolest person ever.”
Little did Wagner know, she would come to surpass the legend of her basketball idol. She was offered a place on the varsity team in seventh grade, and began having more of an impact as a freshman. Already known in NRHEG, Wagner burst onto the larger Minnesota basketball scene as sophomore when she led the Panthers to a comeback win in the state tournament. After Wagner scored 48 points, NRHEG athletic director Dan Stork recalled her surprise when she turned a corner at Target Center and walked right into a horde of reporters, lights and TV cameras. That was a taste of the attention Wagner would garner as her prep career continued. Schultz started receiving phone calls from coaches both inside and outside the Big Ten. He enjoyed helping Wagner and learning about recruiting, and Anderson also gave her some pointers. At first Jane was taken aback when people at games would point out college coaches in the crowd watching Carlie. “It actually scared me, because she was my baby,” Jane said. “We had no clue of this whole process.”
The attention started to become familiar as Carlie put up big numbers, though the local fervor for the team may have been more intense than any recruiting pushes. Carlie said that the community supported all sports and activities, but basketball was the favorite. The team would have photo posters printed, sign hundreds of them and auction them off as a fundraiser. There were times when Stork had to worry about turning fans away at games due to gym capacity. “We used to have people come to our gym from a 50-mile radius,” Jane said. After NRHEG’s third-place finish her sophomore year, Wagner led the Panthers to a 61-game winning streak and consecutive state titles her junior and senior seasons, winning the latter with her sisters on the team.
Wagner finished her prep career with 3,957 points, second on the state’s all-time list. She averaged 37.1 points per game as a senior and raked in a trophy room’s worth of accolades, including Minnesota Miss Basketball honors. The fans’ chants at her final home game nearly brought her to tears. Because of her humility and personable nature, Schultz said Wagner “never had an enemy” despite achieving the type of success that could feed an ego or lead to others’ jealousy. “She’s obviously a very kind person, considerate, just nice to everyone all the time,” Schultz said. “She’s never had a bad thing to say about anybody. But at the same time she’s a fierce competitor inside. It’s kind of a good mix. It’s a mix you typically don’t get. Most kids, if they’re that aggressive and a fierce competitor, sometimes have people that kind of resent them. She somehow pulls it off.”
Wagner was elected homecoming queen her senior year. She also held popularity among area youth coaches and players, whom she would help at practices even after long days of class and her own basketball obligations. “She always went above and beyond and helped out our kids, helped out our program, and built a tremendous amount of excitement around our entire athletic program, not just girls’ basketball,” Stork said. “She’s going to be a special person the rest of her life because of those skills.”
To Williams Arena…
By the second state championship, Wagner had signed her National Letter of Intent to play at Minnesota. It had been her dream school since she knew she wanted to play at the next level.
Wagner said the only time she has felt pressure playing in Williams Arena was during the second state championship, in what she called an “insane” atmosphere. About a dozen buses rolled north from NRHEG, and an entire side of the Barn was filled with Panthers supporters who knew she would be back there in the fall wearing Maroon and Gold. Now Wagner is in the heart of her sophomore season, and calls playing for her state school “the best thing ever.” She entered the starting lineup as a freshman and earned a spot on the Big Ten All-Freshman Team. This year she constitutes half of one of the nation’s top scoring duos alongside Rachel Banham. She has never been afraid to take big shots. “I knew she could, and I still think there’s part of her game that we haven’t seen,” Schultz said. “It’s exciting to watch on TV or go up and watch our community still take buses up to watch her play. A lot of talk and a lot of people in our area following the Gophers because of her being there.”
The hometown support for Wagner never wavered between her high school and college days. As with the state tournament games, there are now organized bus trips to U of M games. Some people even traveled to last year’s Big Ten Tournament outside Chicago. Increasing numbers of Gophers mailboxes have cropped up around town back home. “When you actually see the community gather around, it’s pretty fun to see,” Darren said. “You look back to when she was in third grade and you thought you’d never get to this point. You knew she’d be good, but nothing like this. We just raise our kids to be good and I think it reflects how they act. Everybody loves how they carry themselves on the court.”
NRHEG grade school kids attended the Gophers’ field trip day on Dec. 23 and got autographs after a postgame Q&A session with Wagner. She is now to girls what Anderson was to her. She likes being a role model and said she would gladly help the next area superstar follow in her path. “You want to set a good example for them and you want them to do better than you even did.”
She’ll always be New Richland’s own.
Gopher women’s team posters are in high demand in NRHEG. Jane often brings them back for people who request them, and Carlie signs these and mailboxes when she can. She personally delivered posters to her grandmother and another friend at a care center she visited frequently during high school. The relationship between Wagner and the NRHEG area is a two-way street. Her home shaped her character and her basketball career. Now she is serving as a role model to the next generation and reflecting her success back on her home. “She represents our community so well,” Stork said. “And it’s not just New Richland. It’s New Richland and Hartland and Ellendale and Geneva. She’s just such a quality kid. She conducts herself in a manner that we’re all very, very proud of. I have young girls in the school district that are coming through the basketball program and I had a daughter who played with Carlie on the championship teams in high school. She’s a good role model for all of those kids, boys and girls alike.”
“I would say she helped put New Richland on the map,” Schultz said. “People have a lot of pride and take ownership of her as she progresses through college.”
Wagner stays after games to catch up with the people who came to watch her. The magnitude of southern Minnesota’s support for her college career does not surprise her, but it still amazes her. “It means a lot,” she said. “I wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for them.”
“We get cards and letters and newspaper clippings and congratulations in the mail,” Jane said. “She used to get mail just from fans, old people especially. That’s why we live here. That’s all I can say.”
Carlie, who is studying communications and business and marketing education, said that she will likely live in the Twin Cities for a while, but would love to move back to her hometown eventually if she could find the right job. For now, she enjoys the times when she can visit for a day or two. “It feels the same, besides my brother taking over my room,” she said. Jane and Darren attend the Gophers’ home games and follow road games however they can. When Carlie is away at school, Jane said she usually doesn’t see stories about her daughter until other people tell her about them, though she said Darren has begun to follow news about the team more. Darren said he’d like to see the Gophers make some runs in the NCAA Tournament, but his main hopes for Carlie’s career are for her to have fun and stay healthy. The Wagners’ low-key approach to sports parenting gives a strong hint about where Carlie gets her humble, grateful attitude. The same could be said for New Richland as a whole. People there know about and celebrate Wagner’s athletic accomplishments. But when they say hello to her, it’s because they’re her friends, not because she’s a celebrity. As Jane said: “She’s just Carlie here.”