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.