Carlie Wagner set foot on the Williams Arena court last month with a ball in hand.
The Gophers were more than 32 minutes away from the beginning of practice and the eager freshman was already on the court.
It wasn’t until more than 15 minutes later that another player set foot on the maroon-bordered surface.
Throughout Wagner’s life, she has been a motivated athlete.
As she progressed throughout high school, she played in three varsity sports, and her dedication to academics and athletics separated her from the rest of her class.
Along with holding multiple school and state records in basketball, the New Richland, Minn., native earned accolades in volleyball and track.
Now, her motivation is helping set her apart at the collegiate level. The Big Ten named the guard to the conference’s All-Freshman team last week, and she has helped fill the scoring void created when senior guard Rachel Banham tore her ACL.
“What many people don’t know about her is that she has many God-given talents, but she is so far beyond that,” said Wagner’s high school track coach, Duey Ferber. “She’s taken her God-given talents and she’s really pushed them to the extreme. She’s the first one there and the last one to leave every day.”
Young basketball life
Hanging in the front of the Wagner’s New Richland home sits an old basketball hoop with slabs of cement falling off it.
Her basketball career began on the rickety hoop, but it has now progressed to the historic Williams Arena.
“In third grade, I just saw [her as] another third-grader. She came in, and she was shooting with two hands and you could tell she was athletic, but I’d say by fifth grade there started to be separation,” said John Schultz, Wagner’s coach from third grade to the end of high school.
What separated Wagner from the rest of her youth basketball league teammates was her drive to be better.
“If you told her something she needed to do, she wouldn’t leave the gym until she got it,” Schultz said.
In fifth grade, her dedication off the court became even more evident to Schultz during an offseason tournament.
Schultz and his coaching staff harped on their team to improve left-handed layups.
He paid his players one dollar for every left-handed layup they made during the tournament.
The right-handed Wagner broke the bank.
“I’d say she pampered up 30 by halftime, and the other [coach] yelled at his team ‘You [have to] take the left side away, she’s left-handed,’” Schultz said.
Jumping her way through
One of Wagner’s natural talents is her unprecedented athleticism.
Her ability separated herself not just on the basketball court, but also on the track.
With a crossbar set at 5 feet, 6 inches, Wagner ended her high jumping career how many athletes would want to leave their respective sport.
She landed on the mat, clearing the bar, and in the process, solidified her second state high jump title while competing for New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva High School.
Wagner began her high jump career with feats that were “unheard of” for someone her age, Ferber said.
“In seventh grade, she was already winning some of the smaller meets, and she was always placing high. As a seventh grader, she was [jumping] right around 4 feet, 10 inches to 5 feet,” Ferber said.
Wagner made an impression on her coach quickly in her high school track career and continued to impress even before she set foot in the high school as a student.
“We knew that she was something special right away,” Ferber said. “Our previous school record was 5 feet, and she broke that her eighth- grade year. I knew in seventh grade, the first time she jumped, that she was definitely something special.”
What was most impressive for Ferber, though, was Wagner’s determination to improve.
“On the track, it was her and I out there after everybody had left. She puts in the time and the effort. She takes it really seriously,” Ferber said.
Dedicated and committed
Throughout high school, Wagner built a very close relationship with former Gophers head coach Pam Borton, who recruited her.
When Borton was fired, Wagner was devastated.
The same day, Wagner traveled to the local mall, where she bought Gophers attire — symbolizing the commitment she had to the University of Minnesota.
“She’s always working to advance her game, and that’s what makes her great,” head coach Marlene Stollings said. “She has the heart, the desire and that competitive spirit to get better.”
At the beginning of the season, Wagner said she felt lost because of the change in pace to the Big Ten.
Nevertheless, her hard work has paid off.
“It’s gone by so fast. I think since we’re having so much fun and how successful this season has been, [that] is why it’s going so fast,” Wagner said.
Stepping into her role
With 1:18 left in the Gophers’ 65-61 victory over Penn State in January, Wagner gave Minnesota a clutch 3-pointer to solidify the victory.
“We believe in her so strongly. We’re calling those plays for her down the stretch without hesitation. We know she’s a big-moment type player. For her to be able to step up as a freshman and nail those shots is tremendous,” Stollings said after the game.
The freshman is averaging 12 points per game and has fit in well with Stollings’ up-tempo system.
“Everything I do, I try and do at a high pace. I try and do everything fast and quick, like the speed of the game we try to play,” Wagner said.
While Wagner has adapted to the speed of play, she’s also had to adapt quickly to her increased role.
After Banham went down in December, Wagner stepped up.
And though Banham isn’t on the court, she’s been coaching the freshman all season.
“I like that I’m a role model to somebody that I can help. It’s fun for me to be able to help coach her through her first year. Freshman year is always the toughest, but she’s very coachable, and that’s always great,” Banham said in November.
Wagner’s coachability was on full display in practice nearly two weeks ago when assistant coach Fred Chmiel took her aside after she clanked three consecutive shots off the rim.
After taking his advice and extending her arm less, Wagner drained her last eight shots.
“I would bench her when she wouldn’t take shots or display her talents. Finally her teammates said, ‘Carlie, if you throw [the ball] back to us, we’re going to throw it right back to you,’” her former coach Schultz said. “When she gets the green light … she becomes a whole other animal. There are no limits with that kid. It’s unbelievable.”