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Wagner off to fast start with Gophers

Marlene Stollings got a sense of Carlie Wagner's toughness and athleticism this past summer.

Carlie Wagner.jpg
Carlie Wagner has made a quick transition from a star at NRHEG to a starter for top-25 ranked Minnesota.
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Marlene Stollings got a sense of Carlie Wagner's toughness and athleticism this past summer.

Stollings, Minnesota's first-year women's basketball coach, was having her players work out on the Gophers track. She was bringing to Minnesota the same fast-paced offensive and defensive approach that she went with at her last stop, VCU.

So the sprints were necessary.

The Gophers all participated, including incoming freshmen such as Carlie Wagner, among the best high school basketball prospect ever out of Minnesota.

Stollings watched Wagner tear things up on the track, repeatedly finishing at or near the top in each grueling sprint.

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The coach knew she was getting a big-time scorer in Wagner. She'd finished second all-time in the state in scoring while starring at New Richland-Hartland-Ellendale-Geneva, totaling 3,957 points. En route she led NRHEG to back-to-back state Class AA titles.

What Stollings wasn't aware of was just how fast and conditioned this 5-foot-10 package of skill and determination was. Wagner excelled in track and field at NRHEG, and was among the state's top high jumpers and sprinters.

"I was surprised at how fast she went through the strength and conditioning part of our program," Stollings said. "She made it look easy. That's really helped Carlie's ability to adapt to the college game. She can get out on the (fast) break and is really strong, too, so she can finish in traffic. You don't always see that from someone her age."

Stollings has been seeing it on a regular basis these days. It's one of the best reasons that Minnesota is having the season it is, ranked 21st in the country, 5-2 in the Big Ten and 16-3.

That's happened despite losing point guard and preseason Big Ten player of the year Rachel Banham to a season-ending knee injury just prior to the start of the conference schedule.

Life after Banham

After fear shook the team and its fans that Minnesota would fold up after that, it's done the opposite, going 7-2 since.

Center Amanda B. Zahui has been the biggest Gophers cog with her averages of 16 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocked shots. Transfer forward Shae Kelly has also been vital with her 17 points and nine rebounds per game.

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But Wagner has been everything that Stollings had hoped, and more. She's filled a huge void in the Gophers backcourt, scoring 10 points and grabbing four rebounds per game. A starter since Banham was lost, Wagner has taken on the role fearlessly. She scored 13 points on Sunday, including a flurry of clutch late buckets in a heart-pounding four-point win over Indiana.

"We were confident in Carlie and in her taking big-time shots," Stollings said.

As for Wagner herself, she doesn't profess to having taken the college game immediately by the tail.

There's been a transition. Players often talk about needing to catch up with the speed of the college game. And as fast as Wagner is, it was still no different for her.

"You get here, and it feels like your moving in a tornado, things are going so fast," Wagner said. "Everyone is so strong and fast, and the mental part takes getting used to, too.

"But as I've played more, things are slowing down for me. It's not such a whirlwind."

One thing that Wagner doesn't profess to feeling is pressure. That's despite showing up with such fanfare.

Welcoming committee

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Instead, she's feeling comfort. That's come from a fan base that grows exponentially with each Minnesota win, from a NRHEG community that shows up in droves at Gophers home games, and from teammates who have taken her immediately in.

That includes Banham, who continues to be a driving force for the team with her encouragement from the sidelines.

Wagner was crushed when it was announced that the senior would be out for the season with that knee injury. Wagner had spent the offseason counting down the days that they'd play in games together.

"She's Rachel Banham," Wagner said. "I was so excited to play and learn from the best player in the Big Ten."

Turns out she still is learning from her. Banham has taken Wagner in. So, apparently, has this entire team.

"We are teammates and best friends," Wagner said. "We all trust each other. I'm just happy and blessed to be here."

Related Topics: BASKETBALL
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