Jared Wagner (above) is entering the final few games of a stellar York hoops career, both in high school and college. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Michael Bullock (@thebullp_n)
YORK — Even now, as his college basketball career continues to speed toward its final few seconds, a highly charged Jared Wagner remembers telling his parents that he was ready to author a commitment and finalize his college destination.
Wagner was just several games into his final season as a prominent cog in a rapidly rising Central York High School program when, not more than a few minutes before leaving home to go to practice, when he made an impromptu announcement.
And once Wagner’s mother, Jennifer, learned her son was going to remain in their extended neighborhood and attend school mere minutes away — months before he landed on Pennsylvania’s Class 6A all-state team — the two hugged and undoubtedly shared several tears as yet another memorable moment played out.
York College was where Wagner was poised to spend the next four or so years attending classes, playing basketball and wandering home whenever the self-proclaimed “mama’s boy” felt the need for a quality meal or to wash some clothes.
Not only was Wagner pleased about a decision that would allow him to continue on-court relationships with several of his AAU teammates in the York Ballers program — Darin Gordon of nearby Spring Grove and Joe Polczynski — but he’d constructed strong bonds with York head coach Matt Hunter and assistant Jon Showers.
Plus, his mother and the rest of the Wagner family could see him play … regularly.
“She said I’d be able to stay here and continue to represent York, which I do in all walks of life right now,” Wagner said recently, some 24 hours before his final regular-season home game against St. Mary’s (Md.) began to unfold at sparkling Wolf Gymnasium.
Some four-plus years since finalizing the decision to cast his lot with Hunter’s growing program, all Wagner has done is represent York. And basketball has been at the center of everything he does within the White Rose City or one of its numerous suburbs.
While Wagner has drawn plenty of attention for his on-court play with Hunter’s Spartans, he’s also begun a coaching career he hopes to continue after he receives his Sports Management degree. Right now, he’s part of the York Ballers coaching staff yet he’s also been involved in the program at Eastern York High School.
“He’s done an awesome job from a competitive standpoint and then, from a professional standpoint, he’s been getting involved by working some of the Hoop Group stuff and meeting coaches that way,” Hunter said. “Working for the York Ballers and doing some coaching there and he’s starting to understand how all that works.
“And he’s been over at Eastern working with Justin (Seitz) and getting some of that varsity experience,” Hunter continued. “As for a first-year employee type thing, entry-level position, he’s got a pretty good base to draw off of.”
As Wagner sees it — and his next stop likely will be as a graduate assistant in some college hoops program — all of that stuff will come together in time.
These days, he’s still plugged in to pulling on his white or green No. 5 jersey and finding any way possible to lead York’s Spartans to yet another meaningful victory. After winning the CAC championship this past weekend, that next opportunity will come Friday, in the opening round of the NCAA Tournament, against St. John Fisher (N.Y.), in a game at Mount Union (Ohio).
When the fiery 6-1, 185-pounder bounced on the court prior to the CAC semifinals, there was a lengthier introduction since Wagner was tagged the six-team circuit’s player of the year just one day earlier. It’s a fitting reward since the York senior received CAC player of the week recognition six times during his final season.
As the CAC’s player of the year, landing an All-America nod remains a possibility.
Yet while Wagner’s tangible contributions are many — he leads the league in scoring (18.5 ppg), assists per game (7.0), steals per game (2.9) and is averaging an impressive 6.1 rebounds per game for a lead guard — he’d rather talk about anything but.
“Coach (Hunter) has said this, but my biggest contribution goes far beyond my accolades on the court,” Wagner admitted. “I take that to heart and it means a lot.
“It’s probably the most special thing he’s ever said.”
And Hunter’s comprehensive remarks in the press release York College’s athletic department disseminated following Wagner’s selection as CAC player of the year said as much. Maybe even more since Wagner’s intangibles were just as prominent.
“I am excited for Jared to be named the CAC Player of the Year,” Hunter, York’s eighth-year head coach, said. “It is a true culmination of four years of very hard work leading to incredible skill and role development. His level of competitiveness has elevated all of his teammates. He is our leader and one of the best to ever wear a Spartan uniform.”
Fortunately for York, he’s not finished wearing his Spartan uniform.
Wagner (above) led the Spartans in scoring, rassists, steals, and more as a senior. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)
Yet what characterizes Wagner’s high-octane on-court approach is a competitiveness and desire that surfaces whether the 22-year-old is playing Monopoly at home, engaged in 18 holes of mini-golf with his girlfriend or embroiled in a card game with teammates.
Wagner wants to win at everything he does. And it’s the five-alarm fire burning inside him that provides an endless supply of energy every time out.
“A lot of people sometimes get the wrong idea when they see Jared play, because on the court he’s a completely different person than off the court,” said Gordon, the 6-3 senior wing whose Spring Grove Rockets split four games with Wagner’s Central York Panthers when they were high school seniors.
“I wouldn’t say he’s an introvert, but he’s definitely very laid back. He’s a super nice guy and all those things off the court, but as soon as he steps on the court and we’ve said it to him before and he knows it, there’s like a switch that flips. And he goes from being this laid back, easy-going, super nice guy to just this dog that is super competitive.
“He puts everything he has, every single emotion he has into the game and you can tell when he plays that a lot of the outsiders look at him as being cocky or showboating because they don’t know him,” Gordon continued. “From my perspective, it just shows the passion he has for what he’s doing.”
While Gordon witnessed Wagner’s uber-competitive side as a youngster developing in the Spring Grove program and playing against a series of Central York squads, once he signed on with the York Ballers as a 10th-grader and became one of his teammates he soon learned what made the drive in his friend so passionate and unrelenting.
Even before Wagner and Gordon became teammates at York College, their high school squads played one another in the York-Adams Interscholastic Athletic Association title game … at a jam-packed Wolf Gymnasium. While Spring Grove prevailed, anyone who stuck around saw Wagner and Gordon posing for a series of keepsake photos.
What Wagner and Gordon didn’t know at the time is what they’d eventually accomplish — together — during their four-year run in York’s still-growing program.
Although Wagner will finish his sparkling career as the Spartans’ all-time leader in steals, No. 2 in assists and somewhere in the top 10 in scoring, what means much more are the collective successes York has pocketed during his extended hometown run.
York’s 68-62 triumph in its regular-season finale — Wagner popped a double-double (21 points/11 rebounds in 39 minutes — raised its record to 20-5. As a result, the Spartans reached 20 victories or more for the third season in a row, a program first.
The Spartans’ final regular-season victory also handed Hunter’s club a share of the CAC’s regular-season crown for the third year in a row, another program first.
And after York claimed the CAC’s automatic berth to the NCAA Division III tournament — beating Christopher Newport by two in the title game — the Spartans will play in the NCAAs for the third season in a row. If that national tournament appearance materializes, that’s another program first.
Should Wagner and his teammates capture the CAC postseason crown, reach the NCAA Tournament and advance to the Sweet Sixteen, that’ll give the Spartans 24 victories — 87 since these seniors arrived — matching the biggest four-season win count ever.
“We’ll enjoy it one day. Right now, we’ve got one more regular-season game left and then it’s time for do-or-die season,” Wagner said. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to play for another month-and-a-half (and advance to the Final Four).”
While Wagner has been able to achieve plenty of individual success — and the Spartans continue to do special things collectively — an improved jump shot has been one reason since he’s shooting 53 percent from the floor and nearly 38 percent from the arc.
Maybe more critical to his own development has been his ability to compartmentalize within any contest by shrugging off negative plays quickly. That wasn’t the case when he arrived at York as those same negative plays would linger and linger.
What’s helped him clear those hurdles has been the advent of his own coaching career, whether with the York Ballers program that enabled him to develop relationships with Gordon, Polczynski and Showers or while pitching in at Eastern York.
Wagner has come to fully understand that he can’t ask his players to back off the gas at times or constantly move forward if he’s unable to do so himself. And no one was more critical of Wagner’s on-court performances than Wagner himself.
“That’s part of the reason why I’m having the success I’m having and we’re having the type of success we’re having,” Wagner said. “Just as I put the physical work in, I put the mental work in because I needed it if I was going to take my game to the next level.”
Yet there are times when Wagner’s penchant for improvisation and his deep-rooted creative gene rise to the surface since he’s so competitive and so determined to help his side prevail. And when that happens, it often startles everyone involved.
“He’s definitely got some tricks up his sleeve,” Gordon said. “I’ve played with him and against him for tons of years and still, to this day, he’ll pull things out that we haven’t seen. He definitely surprises the other teams and they’re like, ‘What just happened? I can’t believe he just hit that shot or he just made that move and all that stuff.
“From our end, even though we’re with him every day, he just pulls stuff out and you just take a step back and wonder, ‘Did that just actually happen?’”
“There’s a lot about him that’s just unexplainable,” Hunter admitted. “There’s just a sense of we’re going to do the job. We’re gonna do it and it’s not always pretty. We’re far from pretty. This is what today requires and let me figure it out.”
Of course, there are several examples — just this month.
One came during the Senior Day festivities on Feb. 8, when Wagner rang up a career-high 38 points in York’s thrilling 101-97 victory in two overtimes over perennial Division III hammer Christopher Newport before plenty of familiar faces at Wolf Gymnasium.
Wagner also played the final 21 minutes with four fouls.
“I had essentially all of my family here against Christopher Newport,” Wagner recalled. “It was an emotional ceremony and that was cool, but it was more for my family than it was for me at that point and then I get to play the game.”
The following Saturday at Mary Washington, Wagner fueled a second-half burst that enabled the Spartans to erase a 17-point deficit and rally for a 74-71 victory. He finished with 23 points, seven rebounds and six assists before the 40-minute scrap ended.
And with Wagner on the floor, opponents always are wary of a sudden salvo. Teammates, too, understand anything’s possible since they know Wagner’s going to give everything he has in an effort to generate a positive result.
“We were down 17, didn’t have a good first half and we came out in the second half and you could tell,” said Gordon of a York squad that was down 10 at the break. “There was a sense of urgency, there was a spark, something brewing.
“And as soon as Jared started to click, he started to make some plays, he started to hit shots, he started to get guys open, that kind of sparked our run. It brings along other people. He sets the level that we’re going to play at, so when he’s playing well and he sparks us, that makes us play better and we play for each other all the time.”
Yet despite what seems like an endless stream of Wagner heroics that appear to be super human feats, he’s put in plenty of work to be able to accomplish what he does. At the same time, he’ll quickly point out that he’s just one of the guys.
Heck, he even pushes the water coolers into the training room after every workout.
“He works hard,” Showers said. “What showed me is the day after we played Cabrini (Dec. 19), it was right before Christmas break. So, we had 14 days off going into Ohio. The next day he was back on the gun at 9:30 in the morning when I walked in the office, getting up his 1,000 shots for the day.
“That’s what separates him from your typical (player).”
Even one who has played many of his college games 12 minutes from his front door.
“We pitched to Jared and Darin that you could play with that York on your chest and you could get York back to being a top program in the region,” Showers continued. “You’re not just playing for you and your family, you’re playing for that York across your chest and that’s where you’re from. I think they both feel that’s really special.”
While Wagner will admit he and his classmates will leave the York program in better shape than it was when they arrived, he’s taken steps to make certain the Spartans can continue to get better. When recruits come in for instance, he serves as the closer.
“We’ve had a tremendous amount of success and obviously he’s been a large part of it; to say anything different than that would be lying,” Hunter said.
“His impact is not how many points he’s scored or how many assists he has or how many steals he has, how many player of the weeks or player of the years or that type of stuff, it’s setting the standard for who we are as competitors and that affected all the guys that he’s played with and it will leave an impact with all the guys that are here now and it will allow the program to mushroom and continue to grow and develop.
“You want your legacy not to be your statistics, you want your legacy to be the relationships, the impact you had on the individuals that are still in the program.”
Maybe Wagner always was destined to attend his hometown school, especially since his maternal grandmother earned a two-year degree in the 1960s — not long after the golf course that once sat along Country Club Road began evolving into York Junior College.
What sold him was the program that continues to develop under Hunter and York Catholic grad Showers, being close to his mother and father and the relationships he’s developed and continues to develop with Gordon and Polczynski.
“The guys love being around each other, love being around basketball, love working hard. And I think that culture — yeah, it’s made us better basketball players, which translates to more points, wins, whatever you want to say — but it just creates a better experience for whoever wants to come here,” Wagner said.
“We’re together all the time and I think that’s what makes us special. And that’s what it comes down to. Everything about this program and this school is really, really special and the fact that it was in my backyard essentially made it an easy choice for me.
“There’ll always be a special place in my heart for the time I’ve had here.”