Carlie Wagner walked off the elevated floor of Williams Arena on March 22 with a huge smile on her face. The New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva standout guard had just led her team to back-to-back Class 2A state championships.
Less than a week later, the enthusiastic Wagner was sporting a more solemn tone. The future Gopher just had learned of the firing of the coach, Pam Borton, who recruited her to play in the Big Ten Conference.
“It’s like a punch to my stomach,” Wagner said. “I wasn’t expecting this at all. I’m surprised.”
Borton was fired Friday, the day after her Gophers lost to South Dakota State in the third round of the WNIT. It marked the end of a 12-year tenure that started strong but failed to produce an NCAA tournament berth the past five years.
As news of the coaching change spread across the state Friday and Saturday, the high school basketball community talked about the program developing deeper roots while becoming more successful.
“The bottom line is you have to get to the NCAA tournament, and win,” Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff said. He has guided the Royals to five Class 4A state championships since the 2003-04 season. “That hasn’t happened the last five years.”
Borton compiled a record of 236-152 during her 12 seasons. She guided the program to six NCAA tournament appearances, including a 2004 Final Four trip.
Cosgriff, the most successful active Class 4A coach in the state, always has been a supporter of the Gophers women’s basketball program, and will be in the future.
“Minnesota is a great job, and will be for a long time,” Cosgriff said. “There is a lot of talent in this state. The name of the game at the college level is recruiting.”
The state’s best in the Class of 2014 is Wagner. The Miss Basketball candidate concluded her career as the state’s No. 2 scorer of all time with 3,957 points. She committed to Borton and the Gophers during her junior season.
“I always wanted to be a Gopher,” Wagner said. “I knew what I wanted at that time, and locked into it. I still plan on going there.”
Wagner said she will be on campus in June for summer school and preseason workouts, just as Borton had planned.
“I enjoyed my entire senior year, and this is something that is out of my control,” Wagner said. “I appreciate everything Coach Borton did for me.”
Former Lakeville North coach Andy Berkvam produced Gophers standout guard Rachel Banham. Berkvam had concerns about the program when Banham told him that she was headed to the school. He also coached Liz Podominick, one of five players who quit Borton’s program during the 2005-06 season.
“I asked Rachel what her goals were for the next five years [including her senior season in high school],” said Berkvam, who has just completed his first year coaching the Northfield boys’ basketball team. “Rachel said she wanted to win a Big Ten championship, make the NCAA tournament and reach the Final Four. I wanted her to understand that probably wasn’t going to happen at Minnesota because she wouldn’t have the players around her to compete at the national level.”
That problem was magnified by the 2013 recruiting class. Borton wasn’t able to lure any of top four players in the state to Minnesota. They were Hopkins’ Nia Coffey (Northwestern), Braham’s Rebekah Dahlman (Vanderbilt), DeLaSalle’s Tyseanna Johnson (Iowa State) and Richfield’s Jessica January (DePaul).
“We have a lot of good high school players in the state,” Berkvam said. “If she gets some of those players to come to Minnesota, we probably aren’t having this discussion.”
North Tartan AAU President Bill Larson would like to see Borton’s successor reach out to more communities and coaches around the state. He oversees the state’s most highly regarded summer teams.
“You have to build relationships in the entire state of Minnesota,” Larson said. “You have to build a bond in all of the cities.”
And with that will come more success, according to Larson.
“It’s a relationship game,” Larson said. “We’ve had a lot of kids go to Minnesota. We’ll be as supportive as we can to the program. We want them to get to a high level, and stay at a high level.”