Wagner rewrites the books with six state records
WE’RE NO. 1 — Members of the NRHEG girls’ basketball team celebrate after winning the Class AA state championship Saturday afternoon at Target Center in Minneapolis. The Panthers, No. 2 in the final state ratings, defeated No. 3 Braham 60-59 in what’s been called one of the most exciting championship games in state tournament history. The Panthers’ Carlie Wagner made history herself, breaking five state records and tying another. (Star Eagle photo by Chris Schlaak)
By JIM LUTGENS
For Carlie Wagner and the New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva girls’ basketball team, it was a storybook end to a fairy tale season. There are no more game plans to prepare, no more challenges or adversity to overcome and, most importantly, no more teams to beat.
The Panthers won it all.
Behind a relentless scoring performance by Wagner and tremendous team defense, the Panthers captured the Minnesota Class AA state championship with a thrilling 60-59 victory over Braham at Target Center in Minneapolis Saturday afternoon.
“It’s incredible,” said Wagner, signing autographs after the welcome home ceremony Saturday. “Just looking at everyone in the packed gym is insane. When everyone stood up and cheered, I just went numb.”
Wagner, a junior who has verbally committed to play at the University of Minnesota, broke five state tournament records and tied another. The new records: most points in a tournament, 129, shattering her old mark of 112 set last year; most points in a game, 50, surpassing her own record of 48; most field goals made in a tournament, 48; most field goals attempted in a tournament, 110; most field goals attempted in a game, 43. She tied the mark for most field goals made in a game with 21.
Wagner, the hometown girl who has retained a wholesome, small-town attitude despite the statewide accolades and national attention, found it all difficult to believe.
“It is unreal, it really is,” she said. “Everything that’s happened is like a dream.”
It’s the first state title by an NRHEG team in any sport. Coach Paul Cyr’s wrestling squad came the closest, finishing second in 1999. New Richland-Hartland won the state cross country championship in 1969 and NR-H was state champ in football in 1976 and 1978. The Panther girls were third in last year’s state tournament.
Panther fans flocked to the Twin Cities for all three state tournament games, taking seven charter buses and five school buses Wednesday night. The fans were also there in droves for the welcome home ceremony, packing the gym while giving several standing ovations, singing songs and generally having a lot of fun.
“There’s no better place in Minnesota to coach than right here,” said Panthers head coach John Schultz. “We have the best fan base in the state. People
couldn’t believe the number of fans we had at the state tournament. The standards at this school are set so high; everything is the best here. Finally, we have the best basketball team.”
The Panthers finished the season 32-1 with a 30-game winning streak. But none of the state tournament games were easy.
They opened Wednesday at Williams Arena against Pelican Rapids and struggled early, tied at 25 at halftime. Wagner took over after that, scoring 18 of her game-high 31 points as the Panthers went on to win 62-49. Pelican Rapids finished 21-8.
Friday’s semifinal matchup at Target Center was a true David vs. Goliath affair. The Panthers met tall and talented Minneapolis Washburn, with an enrollment of 741 to NRHEG’s 264. The Section 4AA champion Millers would normally play in Class AAA but Minnesota State High School League rules allow schools with 50 percent or more of its students receiving reduced-price or free lunches to play down a class.
And, like NRHEG, the small school with the big dream, Washburn had some intrigue of its own. The Millers’ head coach, Tylor Coley, who played professionally in Germany and Australia, married 1982 Minnesota Miss Basketball runner-up Kelli Jo Behrens. She died in the fall of 2010, two weeks before the start of Chase Coley’s freshman basketball season. In the quarterfinals, Chase Coley, now a 6-3 junior, was highly instrumental in a 64-58 victory over a talented Sauk Centre team that placed second in the state last year.
Then the Panthers, who played most of the season without starting senior Raelin Schue, who tore an ACL, had their second best player go down with a knee injury just four minutes into the game. Jade Schultz, the Panthers’ leading rebounder, was lost for the game and the tournament.
It looked like Wagner and company simply turned it up a notch after that. In what turned into a slugfest of a game, in which Coley was unable to land many blows thanks to NRHEG’s stifling defense, Wagner tied her state record with 48 points as the Panthers stretched a 32-29 halftime lead to 69-60 at the final buzzer.
“It was a huge accomplishment by all our kids,” said Coach Schultz after the game. “When we lost Jade, there were a lot of worries, but I saw kids step up tonight and do things they haven’t done before.”
Schultz was asked about the prospect of a finals matchup against undefeated Braham, a team they throttled in last year’s state tourney opener.
“It’s going to be a high scoring affair, I think,” said the coach. “I hope we have enough energy to run with them. Last year we had a good formula, with a lot of attention paid to (Rebekah Dahlman).”
Schultz was asked how much stock he would put into that victory when addressing his team.
“We have two starters out now,” he said flatly. “We’re going to put a lot of stock in last year’s win. In a situation like this, you have two choices. You can pack it up and go home, or you strap it up and give it your best shot one last time.”
And that’s what NRHEG’s “Iron Six” did. Wagner, her twin sisters Maddie and Marnie, Katie Cole, Hannah Lundberg and Paige Overgaard, put together a once-in-a-lifetime performance to upend Braham 60-59 in what’s been called one of the most exciting championship games in state tournament history. Wagner did her part with 50 points. Dahlman, the state’s all-time scoring leader who’s headed to Vanderbilt on scholarship, finished with 32 after being held to two free throws in the first half.
Despite a 27-15 NRHEG halftime advantage, the outcome wasn’t decided until the final seconds as the Panthers held off a furious comeback. The winning point came on a Wagner free throw with 5.3 seconds on the clock. As it expired, the Panthers mobbed Wagner, and tears were shed by more than one player as their dream came to fruition.
“I can’t say enough about the guts the kids showed today,” said Coach Schultz at the welcome home ceremony. “People couldn’t believe how we go through tough times, the slow starts, the injuries. It didn’t slow them down. The girls persevered. We fought off a Dahlman comeback in the second half. Last night, we held a top-notch Division I recruit to zero points in the first half. Today, we held a 5,000-point scorer to two points in the first half. What an unbelievable team effort defensively. I couldn’t be prouder. Words can’t describe it. We got our state championship, girls! Way to go!”
Like last year, the Panthers were greeted like conquering heroes upon their arrival home, riding atop a fire truck down New Richland’s main street en route to the school.
Panthers basketball announcer Mark Domeier emceed the welcome home ceremony, giving accolades all around as the capacity crowd responded with standing ovations.
“We’ve got the best player in the state of Minnesota right here!” said Coach Schultz.
NRHEG’s seniors — Cole, Schue and Abby Crabtree, also had a chance to speak.
“Going to the state tournament has been a dream of ours since third grade,” said Crabtree. “To go there and win it just blows me away.”
Domeier reminded everyone of the Panthers’ first state tournament appearance in 2004 and how it inspired the current players.
“What an inspiration you guys are too, to the younger girls,” Domeier said to the Panthers. “That one day they too may play on the big stage.”
The 2012-2013 Panthers did more than play on the big stage. They starred on it.
After the dramatic championship game was finally complete, as the players lined up to shake hands, every Braham player was crying except for one: Dahlman. She smiled and pointed at Wagner before giving her a hug, as if to say, “You got us again, Carlie.”
And you know what? She did.
And all of Panther Nation can be proud.