NEW RICHLAND – Long before she captured the attention of high school coaches, college recruiters and journalists, Carlie Wagner showcased her athletic prowess at home – as a two-year-old.
The young girl was dribbling a regulation-size Nike basketball around the driveway one day, much to the surprise of her grandmother.
“(Her grandmother) was like, ‘Look at her. … Look at what she’s doing,’” said Jane Wagner, Carlie’s mother.
“My mom was like, ‘Kids that age don’t do that,’” Jane Wagner said.
15 years later, those words still apply to Carlie Wagner. The three-sport athlete from New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva accomplished more as a sophomore last year than most high school athletes do in their careers.
Wagner, who plays basketball, volleyball and track and field, set several school records, broke two Minnesota girls basketball records and won a state track and field title last year. She’s on her way to becoming one of the best athletes in NRHEG history. One of her coaches says she already is.
“There’s going to come a day where I’m going to be telling stories to my track kids about Carlie,” said track and field coach Duane Ferber, who earlier this month said Wagner’s the best athlete he’s ever seen. “The Folklore of Carlie Wagner.”
Alison Anderson is considered one of the best – if not the best – high school athletes to come out of NRHEG in recent history. A 2006 graduate who played basketball and ran track and cross country at South Dakota State University, Anderson has a mile-long list of high school accomplishments.
When she was at NRHEG, younger students looked up to her. Wagner was one of them.
“I’ve pretty much worked my butt off to be like her because she was such an inspiration to me growing up,” Wagner said. “Hopefully I’m about the same level as her because I respect her a lot.”
Things have changed since Anderson’s impressive career at NRHEG. She still holds school records and forged a lasting legacy at the high school, but Wagner is the athlete all the kids look up to now.
“It felt like it was just me last year looking up to her like that,” Wagner said, “and all the sudden now it’s me (they look up to). Time goes really fast.”
The humble yet bubbly sophomore led an undefeated Panthers basketball team to the Class AA State Tournament last season, where she broke former Minneapolis South standout Tayler Hill’s tournament scoring record by posting 112 points in three games.
Three months later, Wagner capped her sophomore season with a Class A state title in the high jump, tying her school record jump of 5-06 and defeating defending champion Emma Lange of Caledonia/Spring Grove in a head-to-head showdown.
Wagner’s sheer athleticism at middle-hitter also propelled her to the status of one of the best volleyball players in the Gopher Conference, helping lead the team to a solid 23-6 record last season.
“Her physical capabilities are endless,” said NRHEG volleyball coach Joe Kuechenmeister. “The potential is sky high in anything that she does athletically.”
The 5-foot-10-inch incoming junior is quick and explosive, boasting a crowd-gasping 26-inch vertical jump. To top it off, Wagner has a determined work ethic, an uncanny drive and a coachable attitude, her coaches say, all of which help make her a star athlete.
Before a basketball game, Wagner is usually quiet, her mind racing about what she needs to do to help her teammates and what her job is on the floor. And when she gets out on the court, the game is her only focus, she said. “I see and hear nothing else,” Wagner said. “It’s just the game.”
The game of basketball, to no one’s surprise, is admittedly Wagner’s best sport.
Ask NRHEG girls basketball coach John Schultz where Wagner ranks among players he’s coached in his 10 years of coaching girls varsity basketball, and you’ll get a simple answer.
“One,” said Schultz, who began coaching Wagner in third-grade basketball. “Not a doubt.”
Last season, Wagner averaged nearly 29 points per game, shooting 55 percent from the field. She also led the team in assists (157) and snatched just more than four steals per game.
“In practice, no one really feels bummed if you get burned by her or anything because she’s super good,” said Jade Schultz, Wagner’s teammate and best friend.
The Panthers phenom set single-season school records last year in steals (137) and points (956). She also scored a school- and state tournament-record 48 points against Pequot Lakes in the Class AA third-place game. She’s NRHEG’s all-time leading scorer – for both boys and girls – with 1,700 points. And she’d probably have more if she wasn’t so unselfish, Schultz said.
“She scores them when we need in games when the games are big,” Schultz said. “…Otherwise, she’s real busy trying to make her teammates more involved.”
‘...You don’t look at her as being a mega-superstar’
Those close to Wagner say her display of humility and kindness coupled with her athletic abilities is what makes her a special player. Some of the adjectives her coaches used to describe her: Well-rounded. Caring. Polite. Coachable. Cool.
“The thing about Carlie is that she’s so down to earth, you don’t look at her as being a mega-superstar,” Ferber said.
“It’s so refreshing to see someone that’s that good just be humble about it,” Kuechenmeister said.
But her humble personality doesn’t take away from her competitive spirit. She’s a fierce competitor, her coaches say, and she hates losing. She’s confident, but not arrogant. And her actions back up her words.
“When we lost that semifinal game (against Sauk Centre) at state last year, after the game – and she’s never said anything like this before – she said, ‘I pity whoever guards me tomorrow,’” John Schultz said. “And she came out and put up 48 and set a state record.”
However, you won’t find even a hint of arrogance in Wagner’s personality. It’s a character trait she dislikes, she said.
So how does she stay humble?
“I’m still really immature, so...” Wagner said, trailing off in laughter. “I guess I don’t think of anything that way. I just think, oh, my team first, and then I guess that’s what I mostly think about.”
Wagner could play volleyball or track and field at the college level, but it’s clear that her athletic future is in on the basketball court.
“Let’s face it – in my opinion, she’s going to be the face of Minnesota basketball in the next six years,” said Ferber, her track and field coach.
Wagner will likely have her pick of college basketball programs when the time comes for her to make that decision. She’s already sparked interest from most of the programs in the Big Ten and the Big 12 conferences, as well as other Division I schools, Schultz said. About 25-30 colleges have told him she’s one of their top priorities in the class of 2014, he said.
Right now, Wagner has her eye on one university in particular: The University of Minnesota. She’s leaving the door open for options, she said, but the U of M is currently at the top of her list.
“I’ve always kind of grown up kind of wanting to be a Gopher,” Wagner said.
The U of M has its eye on Wagner, too. Head coach Pam Borton has shown up at the NRHEG gymnasium to watch Wagner play.
‘The target’s going to be on the back a little bit...’
Entering her junior year, Wagner’s not going to sneak up on anyone. Her headline-grabbing sophomore season made sure of that.
“The target’s going to be on the back a little bit, but I’m just going to play and have fun anyways, because I’ve got my teammates to back me up, and they’re going to have fun, too,” Wagner said. “It’s a team thing, so we’ll just focus on that and go from there.”
Currently, she’s working hard to improve during the offseason. Most weeks consist of NRHEG basketball practice, weight lifting and traveling to play for the Minnesota Stars, an AAU basketball team, where she can hone her skills among some of the nation’s top competition.
Her goal for the future is simple: more state tournament berths. And she expects to have a lot of fun in the process.
“I just want to get to state a couple more times, that’s for sure, because that’s one of the best experiences and probably one of the most memorable things in my life right now,” she said.
As a 17-year-old, Wagner surely will have more chances at getting to state. And setting records. And leaving behind one of the most decorated athletic careers NRHEG has ever seen.
“It’s unbelievable to see an athlete who just wrapped up her sophomore year in high school have the opportunities that she has,” Kuechenmeister said, “and she still has two more years to go.”
Sports Editor Miles Trump can be reached at 507-837-5447. Follow him on Twitter at @WCNSports.