Carlie Wagner stretches out her tired arms, letting her fingers curl toward the sky.
“Whew,” she blurts. “The toughest part of my day is over!”
The University of Minnesota shooting guard, perhaps the most lauded freshman athlete on campus, smiles as she bursts through the double doors at the Bierman Athletic Building and into the morning sun. If not for her maroon-and-gold workout shorts, damp tank top and blonde hair tied into a hasty knot — the wrappings of a competitor — the casual observer might only see a playful girl striding through campus, heading for breakfast.
Twenty minutes earlier, at that morning’s conditioning session, Wagner’s eyes were glowing embers.
“Carlie is so much fun,” said her cousin, Hayley Darrington. “She has always been just so sweet. But now, watching her on the basketball court, it’s like ‘Wow.’ She’s got some fire in her.”
Wagner arrived on campus two months ago, bringing with her the expectations of a record-setting scorer and top recruit who could contribute to a Gophers team that teetered on the edge of the NCAA tournament bubble a year ago.
Her parents, Darren and Jane, packed up their Chevy Suburban and drove Carlie 90 miles up Interstate 35. As they approached the Lake Street bridge, the Minneapolis skyline towered above them. The country girl felt a tinge of anxiety.
“I was scared to come at first,” Wagner said. “You have to understand, I’m from a really small town.”
In New Richland, a tiny farming community with two restaurants, one truck stop and no stoplights, basketball ruled.
Somewhere inside the Wagner house on the hill, there is a home video that was rediscovered years ago with a new poignancy. In it, a 2-year-old Carlie grabs a rubber ball and chucks it at the plastic hoop affixed to the wall in her older brother’s room.
“Your first basket!” her mother coos at the camera.
Family get-togethers at the Wagner house featured P-I-G, H-O-R-S-E, lightning and 4-on-4 on the driveway court. Wagner tagged along. She was the youngest by far, but her brothers, Danny and Alex, and older cousins didn’t believe in special treatment. They blocked the ball back in her face. They pushed her down. Almost every game ended with little Carlie crying.
“I honestly thought she was going to be a girlie girl,” said Darrington, who was a 1,000-point scorer at Blue Earth High School. “We would stuff her.”
At 6 a.m., the sun begins to peek through the fence vines enclosing the Bierman track. Most of the players, in the midst of a grueling set of sprints, are hurting. They lean down over their thighs, arms resting on knees.
Wagner is upright and practically bouncing. She lines up next to sophomore Joanna Hedstrom — they are the team’s quickest — on the sun-baked grass.
“Seven more,” Hedstrom breathes, leaning against a fence pole.
“We got it, we got it,” Wagner says with encouragement. Her eyes are already on the other end of the field.
“That’s who she is,” new Gophers coach Marlene Stollings would say later. “From a basketball standpoint, people would probably be shocked if they were to find out that she has this other side off the court because she is so intense and competitive.”
As the 100-meter sprints pile up, the distance between Wagner and her trailing teammates grows.
Stollings called Wagner one of the strongest and best- conditioned freshmen she’s seen. The 19-year-old has the chance to play a big role on this year’s team, along with stars Rachel Banham and Amanda Zahui B., in the venue she idolized as a kid.
One could call it a dream, except for many years Wagner didn’t dare to think it possible.
In 2004, an 8-year-old Wagner watched the Gophers advance to the Final Four behind Janel McCarville and Lindsay Whalen.
She was hooked. She’d watch all the televised games she could, then walk over the basketball-shaped Gophers rug in her bedroom and gaze up at the team’s Final Four poster.
It all seemed far away, and the path to it elusive. The young players in the city, miles from the farmlands of New Richland, had the best competition, the personal trainers, the basketball spotlight.
Wagner, meanwhile, did not start playing organized ball until third grade, working for years just to correct her awkward, two-handed shot.
But as she headed into high school, things changed. She started as a freshman for Class 2A New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva and promptly averaged 17 points.
Watching from the bleachers, Darrington was dumbfounded. The crying little blonde girl she remembered had become a terror between the lines.
Wagner grew more dominant each season, reeling off 40- and 50-point games. She led NRHEG to two state titles. Fans from around the region poured into the tiny gym, coiling around its edges until the town’s fire marshall showed up to lock the doors.
One day, long before scoring 3,957 career points — second most in state history — and winning the 2014 Minnesota Ms. Basketball award, Wagner approached Panthers coach John Schultz.
“I think I really want to play basketball in college,” she told him. “I started getting [recruiting] letters and I started getting really excited.”
Iowa, Iowa State, North Dakota, South Dakota, Maryland, Michigan and Washington offered, along with Minnesota. But Wagner’s decision was clear, and even after former coach Pam Borton — who originally accepted her national letter of intent — was fired, she never wavered.
“I was still in love with the campus, the team,” she said. “And how close to home it was.”
Off the court, the sweet girl who misses her family and her mother’s kitchen, perpetually filled with the aroma of roasts of pheasant, turkey and deer her father would hunt, remains. At night, she hears the whir of cars passing beneath her University Avenue dorm room window. The Dinkytown campus and the big city might be just outside, but on her walls are pictures of wide-open spaces and her friends and family back home.
When she pulls on her high-tops, however, Wagner wears a face much different from the one in those photos. The smile is replaced by a ferocious glare, with eyes focused on what’s ahead.
“There’s no pressure,” she says of the upcoming season. “There are so many of us that can do so many different things well.”
Soon, she’ll step on Williams Arena’s raised floor for the first time as a Gopher. At breakfast, the thought of that moment stops the bouncing. The fire is back.
“I can’t wait,” she says, “to get in there.”