Knock Wabash Valley's Shaulana Wagner Down And See What Happens
“Everyone has a plan until they get hit . . . I will not be shaken, for He gives me the strength to hit back.” The message inscribed across Shaulana Wagner’s left arm has a far deeper meaning than it may seem.
Shaulana Wagner has been hit plenty of times in her life. Growing up in a house full of athletes, she managed to stand out from her peers at a young age. Wagner went down a path that very few girls choose to pursue in their childhood: she donned shoulder pads and a helmet, and she took to the football field. Eventually, she transitioned over to basketball, where she quickly found success.
However, Wagner encountered obstacle after obstacle on her road to stardom. From a broken collarbone to multiple concussions (including one that nearly derailed her high school career), she constantly had to fight to simply stay on the court. Then, in 2021, she made the difficult decision to change home courts: she would transfer from Xavier University to Wabash Valley College.
Through it all, Wagner never gave up. She has always embodied two key traits that define her career: a sense of resilience and a “go big or go home” mindset. Any time Wagner gets knocked down, she gets back up. Just like her tattoo says, she always finds the strength within her to hit right back.
Showing Off Her Athletic Prowess Early In Life
Born and raised in the west side of Detroit, Michigan, Wagner was always around sports. Her oldest brother, Aaron, played college football at Siena Heights University. Wanting to follow in her brother’s footsteps, Wagner would play backyard football with her brothers any chance she got. She took no prisoners whenever she got the chance to play. She even made her younger brother Autus cry on multiple occasions.
“I used to be in my backyard, hitting with my brothers. I wanted to put the pads on. I said I wanted to do it, that it looked fun,” Wagner said. “We used to be in the backyard, and I used to hit my brothers and stuff. One day, we asked my mom [if I could play], and she didn’t have a problem with it.”
Throughout Wagner’s early childhood, her mother worked as a waitress to support her children and their athletic pursuits. Meanwhile, she was attending nursing school with the hopes of securing a more sustainable job to take care of her six children.
After several years of turmoil and struggle, Wagner’s mother now works as a traveling nurse while still maintaining her role as head of her household. Wagner expressed pride in all her mother has accomplished, going as far as to call her “Superwoman.” Thanks to her mother’s efforts and constant support for her children, Wagner managed to join a recreational football league when she was just seven years old.
Wagner’s Early Stint On The Football Field
Wagner played all over the football field. Starting off as a cornerback, she also spent time at quarterback, running back, wide receiver and linebacker in her seven-year career. As the only girl on the field, Wagner heard plenty of ridicule and insults from the boys she faced off against. She won’t justify the insults by repeating them today.
Nevertheless, she never let her opponents get in her head. The hostility only made Wagner stronger. She embraced her status as the only woman on the turf; whenever she scored a touchdown, she would take her helmet off and shake her hair around to let her opponents know that a girl had just taken them to school.
“Playing with the boys, they got so upset. When it comes to women being bigger, better or stronger than men at anything they do, it’s always a competition and they get upset. I used to get called all types of names… I just always laughed it off. It never really bothered me,” Wagner said. “I had boys out there trying to hurt me. They wanted to come hit against me. We used to go do 1-on-1s, I’d hit them, and I made them quit.”
Wagner did not escape her football career entirely unscathed. At one point in her middle school career, she broke her collarbone during practice. She briefly stopped on the field when her coach blew a whistle, but one of her teammates (who she described as a “big boy”) tackled her. Attempting to tough it out, she remained in the backfield.
On the next play, a bad snap caused a fumble, and Wagner dove on the ball. Some teammates pounced on her, only worsening her already injured collarbone. In classic Shaulana fashion, she once again tried to play it off, but it soon became clear to her coach (and her nursing school-graduate mother) that she was hurt badly.
“I got a call [from the coach], he said he saw tears in her eyes, and he didn’t think she could play anymore,” Shaulana’s mother, August Wagner, said. “I pulled her, took her to the emergency room and saw her collarbone was broken.”
From The Turf To The Hardwood
As she entered high school, Wagner started drifting away from football and took up basketball. She enrolled at Detroit Edison Public School Academy and became a key player for the Pioneers. Wagner quickly adjusted to the fast-paced style of play, but she faced another physical roadblock: the transition from the football field to the basketball court itself. Her skills were not an issue; the problem came from her adjustment to the hardwood floors itself.
“When it comes to sports, I don’t think it’s really a struggle… I think I’m pretty athletic and I learn quickly, especially when it comes to sports and if it’s something I’m enjoying,” Wagner said. "The only thing I ever really had a problem with was my knees. I had a little knee problem when I went from football to basketball; from turf to the hard floor, it was a big difference. . . I used to have tendinitis really bad in both knees, to the point where I couldn’t even play games.”
Despite these recurring knee issues, Wagner made a sizable impact on her squad in just her first year alone. She mostly played at point guard, which proved to be a major transition for her. However, she also drew on some of her football experience to adjust to her role as the “floor general” on the court.
“When I’m on a basketball court, I play like I’m on a football field like I’m a safety… You never really know where I’m coming from,” Wagner said. “I definitely think my IQ translates [to basketball], because the first thing I always do is look up to see who’s up there that I can throw the ball [to], or I try to think of [my opponent’s] next step before they even do it. I try to read them before they even read themselves.”
An Up-And-Down Freshman Year
Early in her freshman year, Wagner had yet another play-through-the-pain moment that added to both her resume of impressive plays and her injury history. In a tie game with less than 10 seconds on the clock, Wagner took the ball up the court. One of her teammates was trying to get the ball from her, but a miscommunication led to the two crashing into each other.
Wagner collided heads with her teammate and immediately felt the pain, but she remained focused on the task at hand. She dove on the ball and scooped it over to another teammate, who went on to hit the game winning shot. Wagner attempted to chase down her team while celebrating, but she fell to the floor as she drifted in and out of consciousness. She was later diagnosed with a concussion, which forced her to miss a few games.
She would soon return to the court and immediately went back to making more big-time plays. One of Wagner’s biggest moments with the Pioneers came during their State Championship matchup in her freshman year. In another tightly contested matchup, Wagner and the Pioneers looked for one last stop to win the game.
“We were full court pressing, and Coach [Brown] told us not to gamble, to stay solid and make them take their time. There’s five seconds left on the clock. They passed it down, and I gambled, even though Coach said not to. They passed it to the person in the corner, I sprinted all the way from half court, and I blocked the corner shot. This girl, she had been hitting shots all game, so if she released it, it was most likely going in. So, I ended up with the game-winning block, and the block was tough. I literally snatched it out of her hand.”
Another Head Injury Sidelines Wagner Indefinitely
As time went on, Wagner began to capture the attention of prestigious programs across the country. By her junior year, she had received offers from several Division 1 schools, including Michigan State University, Purdue University and the University of Michigan. However, midway through Wagner’s junior season, things took a turn for the worse.
“I was in a basketball game, and I’m dribbling down the court full speed. Somebody pushed me in my back, and somebody else was coming across when I was running, and we just [collided] really badly,” Wagner said. “I honestly don’t know where it hit, but it just went really hard. It just went ‘BOOM’ real hard, and I fell to the floor.”
Wagner mentioned that she immediately knew she had sustained another concussion. But the pain from this one proved to be far worse. She wound up spending nearly two weeks in the hospital and did not return to Detroit Edison until the end of the school year.
“She didn’t even know her brothers’ or sisters’ names, let alone how to play basketball,” August Wagner said. “She couldn’t remember anything… It [was] a traumatic brain injury.”
Following this extended absence from the court, several schools stopped talking to Wagner. She, however, made it her mission to return to the hardwood by any means necessary. Though there were times she nearly gave up, she always found a way to keep going. Wagner credited this resilience to her previous tenure in football, citing how her time in the sport made her “physically tough, mentally tough – all types of tough.”
Despite taking some time to readjust to her old pace and style of play, Wagner managed to return to her full potential in her senior year. As a result, a lot of schools tried reentering the “Shaulana Sweepstakes” now that she had regained full health. One school stood out to Wagner due to loyalty throughout her junior year turmoil: the Xavier University Musketeers.
“When you first come back, you’re not really yourself. You’re still kind of scared and nervous, you’re frightened. That’s how I was playing, but eventually, I started playing like myself,” Wagner said. “That’s when coaches started coming back along, but Xavier [University] stuck with me the whole time… That stuck out to me. Xavier was actually one of my last offers . . .but they made [the offer] during my concussion stuff.”
Landing With Wabash Valley After A D1 Stint
Wagner saw immediate action in her first year at Xavier. In her freshman year, she appeared in 11 games, starting in two, while averaging 20.7 minutes per game. She finished the season averaging 4.1 points, 2.3 rebounds and 0.9 assists per game. Wagner also tallied a season-high 11 points against Seton Hall University and 7 rebounds against Creighton University. While Wagner managed to hold her own against some of the best talent across the country, keeping up with the pace of a Division 1 program proved to be a daunting task.
“Coming from there, they definitely expect a lot from you, because they know you can do it,” Wagner said. "Being at that high of a level, it’s different. You have to be locked in, or everything will fly over your head. They tell you stuff 24/7, so you have to be paying attention.”
At the end of her freshman season, Wagner had a difficult decision to make. In need of a change of scenery, she opted to leave Xavier University and transferred to Wabash Valley College. While she garnered interest from several schools across the country, Wagner decided to join the Warriors because she felt they offered her the best route to reach her end goal.
“I went to JUCO because I knew I wanted to go back to D1,” Wagner said. "I just wanted a change, but I wanted to go back to D1. I just didn’t know what school yet. And I knew Coach Luke [Scheidecker] could get me there.”
Wagner has felt a close connection with Wabash Valley’s Head Coach Luke Scheidecker from the moment they met. Before she made the decision to join the Warriors, Wagner agreed to meet with him in West Virginia, where she was living. Scheidecker made the five-hour trek, sat down with Wagner for a two-hour lunch, and returned to Illinois on the same day.
The amount of effort that Scheidecker put in to simply meet Wagner stuck with her for a long time. She gained a tremendous amount of respect for her soon-to-be head coach, and the rest was history. It appears that respect is mutual, as Scheidecker takes great pride in the strides that Wagner has made with Wabash Valley. From her 3.61 GPA in the Spring 2022 semester to the energy and passion she leads her teammates with, Wagner has made enormous progress both on and off the court since joining the Warriors. Scheidecker could not be happier with that progress.
“It's hard to find someone who loves to win more than she does. She commands that her teammate compete every day,” Scheidecker says. “She plays with a swagger that is hard to find. Her passing and playmaking ability is also off the chart. She makes plays and passes that not many people in the country can make.”
Thriving With The Warriors
One of Wagner’s closest teammates at Wabash Valley, I’ces Utegg, described Wagner as a silent killer. Ironically, Utegg’s first impression of Wagner was shock over her favorite color: pink. After getting to know her for a while, Utegg realized just how special her new teammate was. Despite Wagner’s initial quiet demeanor, the two became more friendly and quickly gained chemistry on the court.
“That girl has her own style. It’s hard to relate it to anyone or put her in a certain category,” I’ces Utegg said. “She drops dimes, gets to the cup through traffic, pretty much has her way when the ball is in her favor. She’s a dawg, simply.”
Utegg’s favorite memory of Wagner came when the two decided to get some extra reps in after team practice. Wagner worked on one particular move over and over, and she would not stop going at it until she perfected it. Utegg, catching the passes for Wagner every time she ran through the play, could not help but marvel at the “determination and excitement on her face.” It was like nothing she had ever seen before from any other player.
Utegg also joked about how Wagner (whom she affectionately calls “Wag”) is one of the most vocal players on the court, despite her reserved personality off of it. Nevertheless, Utegg made it clear that above all else, Wagner is a good friend and an even better teammate, and that she is someone that any person would want in their corner.
“The way the game brings Wag alive and how her energy is on the court you wouldn’t think that she’s actually shy,” Utegg said. “All around, Wag is someone that you can always depend on to keep it real with you, to make you better, or to [go] to for some of the things that you feel you can’t go to anybody else for. We’ve become family for those reasons, and I’m glad she came into my life the way she did.”
Finding Even More Success On The Court
Wagner’s work ethic and dedication carried over to her on-court performances with the Warriors. She led the NJCAA last season with 7.8 assists per game, also chipping in 12.2 points, 5.2 rebounds and a team-high 3.2 steals per game. Some of Wagner’s best performances included a season-high 24 points against Vincennes University, a three-game span in November when Wagner racked up 20 total steals (seven steals in two games and six steals in one game) and a near triple double against Kaskaskia College with a 19-9-10 stat line.
Wagner also tallied double-digit assists in nine of her 28 appearances on the year. By the end of the 2021-22 season, Wagner and the Warriors had compiled a 27-1 record and earned a District Championship matchup with Rend Lake College. In the first half of the game, she could not get a shot to fall, and no one on the Warriors could quite get going. Entering the second half trailing by one point, Wagner’s mental toughness once again came through, as she refused to give in. Rather than forcing it on the offensive end, she took it upon herself to get her teammates going. And it worked.
“She struggled in the first half with finishing at the rim. We talked at half time to just keep attacking and making plays as it will fall,” Scheidecker said. “In the third quarter she took over making plays and we went on a huge run with her setting the tone with her energy.”
Wabash Valley went on a 23-7 run in the third quarter to secure a 70-56 victory over Rend Lake. In just her first year with the Warriors, Wagner had already led them to a District 24 championship. Although they were subsequently knocked out in the second round of the NJCAA National Championship tournament, the Warriors still finished the 2021-22 season with a remarkable 28-2 record.
Despite all of her achievements last season, Wagner has her eyes set on even more success next season. Her biggest goals for the 2022-23 season are to become the number 1 player in all of women’s JUCO, to go undefeated with the Warriors and to help lead her squad to a national championship.
Such lofty goals will result in plenty of obstacles along the way. But if Wagner has made one thing clear throughout her entire career, it is that no matter how many times she gets knocked down, she will rise back up, stronger than ever before.
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