By George Ferguson/Havre Daily News Sportsemail@example.com
Havre High senior Gary Wagner will carry on a recent tradition of Blue Pony quarterbacks taking their talents to the collegiate level. Wagner announced late Wednesday night that he intends to play football for the three-time defending NAIA national champion Carroll College Fighting Saints and head coach Mike Van Diest.
Wagner helped guide the Blue Ponies to the 2004 Class A state championship and this past season threw for 2,900 yards and 38 touchdowns while earning first-team all-conference and all-state honors.
Wagner has also been selected to play in both the Montana Shrine Game and the Montana/North Dakota all-star football game this summer. For his career, he passed for over 5,000 yards and threw more than 60 touchdowns. His Havre team's lost just two games in two seasons. Wagner was also selected to the prestigious Tribune Super State football team this season.
But with all of his football accomplishments, Wagner said that Carroll's tradition as an institute of higher learning is what led him to choose Helena over offers from Montana State University-Northern and Montana Tech, as well as a chance to walk on at the University of Montana.
"Academics come first for me," Wagner said. "And Carroll is an outstanding school, so that was a big reason for me deciding to go there.
"And then, what's not to like about their football program," he added. "Coach Van Diest has built a great tradition there and I really want to be a part of it, and hopefully I can help make it even better someday."
Van Diest quickly recognized Wagner's ability to play quarterback for the Saints. While Wagner's numbers and physical attributes certainly stood out to the veteran head coach, Van Diest stated that Gary possessed several other qualities that he believes will make him a special player at Carroll in the future.
"We knew that Gary was a great athlete and a great quarterback," Van Diest said. "But what also impressed us is that he has the intangibles that we look for in a player. The fact that he only threw 14 interceptions while putting up those passing numbers is very impressive, and the fact that he helped his team to an undefeated season and a state championship and that he has won state championships in tennis means that the things he is doing aren't by luck. We felt that Gary was a lot like some of the other great quarterbacks we have recruited in the past like the Emmert brothers and others. He is obviously a leader and he knows how to win. There are just a lot of things about Gary that are very impressive.
"We like to try to recruit kids that seem to be the right fit for us," he added. "I think that with Gary it works out both ways. We feel like he is certainly the right fit for our program and I think he felt that we were the right fit for him both on and off the football field, and he is just an outstanding young man."
Those are very impressive words from a coach who has become one of the most successful coaches in recent NAIA history as well as in the state of Montana. But Van Diest's reputation and personality was another deciding factor in what was a very difficult decision for Wagner.
"Coach Van Diest is a great guy and a great coach," Wagner said. "He treats his players like they are his own kids and all of the players talked about how much they respect him and look up to him. He is really there for his players, a lot like coach Purcell is for us, and that was something that was really important to me - was playing for a coach like coach Van Diest."
Wagner will spend the fall of 2005 as a redshirt for the Saints. After that he will have an opportunity to compete for the starting quarterback job, which will be vacated by 2004 NAIA player of the year Tyler Emmert. Van Diest said that while Wagner possesses all of the tools that a great quarterback needs, his redshirt year should make him that much better.
"Right off the bat, we saw that Gary is a very accurate passer and he has great arm strength. We also like his speed," Van Diest said. "But as good a player as he is, one of the things that really excited us about him is that we feel like he has an even bigger upside.
"He will get to spend a year mentoring under Tyler, and that will benefit him greatly because Tyler is a great quarterback and he knows this offense inside and out," he added. "Tyler had the same opportunity when he redshirted under his brother, so we know Gary will only get better being able to work under Tyler. We are just really excited to have him in our program"
Aside from Wagner's accomplishments on the football field he brings an impressive athletic and academic rsum to Helena. He has been a star on the HHS tennis team for three years. He and Marc Mariani captured the Class A state doubles title last season and finished second as sophomores. He has been a part of three straight HHS team championships as well. Wagner is also a two-year member of the varsity basketball team and this season he is averaging nine points and six rebounds per game for the 15-2 Blue Ponies.
Gary had maintained a 3.6 GPA in his four years at Havre High and he intends on majoring in pre-medicine at Carroll College. He attended Boys State last summer and is involved in such activities as Hi-Liters and Leadership High School among other community service programs.
"I am really excited about going to Carroll," Wagner said. "I have had a lot of help to get here from people like coach Purcell and our football coaching staff. Those guys made me into the player that I am and I owe them a lot. There have been a lot of people that have helped me, and I just say thank you to all of them."
Gary is the son of Dan and Mary Wagner. He has three sisters, Lisa, Julie and Dani, as well as a younger brother, Billy, who is a sophomore at HHS.