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The last line(s) of defense

PHS sophomore Sean Wagner watches a shot approach him before making a save against Cody at home April 7. PHS sophomore Sean Wagner watches a shot approach him before making a save against Cody at home April 7. Tribune photo by Dante Geoffrey

PHS keeper Wagner grows into team leader under Katz’ guidance  

Sean Wagner stands in an empty, echoing Powell High School gym with a wide stance and crossed arms.

He isn’t closing himself off, but if he’s naturally guarded, it would make sense. Wagner is the starting goalkeeper for the 4-0 Powell Panthers soccer team.

It’s the same Powell Panther soccer team that has shut out three of its four opponents and outscored the competition 16-3.

When it comes to soccer, Wagner isn’t used to being singled out — except by opposing forwards. And as far as he’s concerned, he’s not sure why anyone’s concerned about him.

He’s just a goalkeeper, after all.

“Whenever any soccer is brought up it’s all about scoring goals ... it’s not about the guy that has to stop the goals,” says Wagner, whose bright orange Denver Broncos T-shirt makes his unstyled bristle of red hair look dull by comparison, perhaps a strategic move for a 16-year-old who feels isolated enough by his position.

He says keepers tend to get the recognition at the international and professional levels.

“Just not in small towns like Powell, and in high school they don’t really care that much,” Wagner said. “You’re just the goalie.

“They don’t really bring up anything about the kid who’s back there all by himself.”

Wagner explains this as a matter of fact. He doesn’t take it as a personal slight. He’s not another in the seemingly endless list of athletes (beginning in the pros and quickly trickling down to the high school ranks) who hunt down any words that can be perceived as (the most marginal) insults and turn them into finely crafted chips to be worn as badges on their shoulders.

Wagner’s shoulders shrug it off. He’s not new to Wyoming soccer, and he’s not new to goaltending.

Wagner has been the man between the pipes since he was 9 and playing for the Yellowstone Fire of Cody. Like all kids, Wagner got a taste of every position on the field, but he soon found a home in net.

“I fell in love with it,” he said.

Luckily, he fit the role at a time when many kids his age didn’t.

“I was probably pretty good at it and I was the biggest on our team, so it was a lot easier for me than the rest of them,” he said.

Wagner played for the Fire, including two state-champion teams, when he was 13 and 14, until he began his career at PHS last season.

With then-junior Heston Swenson starting the season in goal, Wagner sat and studied.

He got his shot toward the end of the regular season and started both of Powell’s games in the state tournament.

The postseason experience gave him a head start on the 2014 starting job, but it was the friendly tutelage of All-State sweeper Noah Katz that helped the most.

“Me and Noah, we’re really good friends,” Wagner said. “I grew fond of him last year during the season (when) he helped me out as a freshman.”

Katz, a senior who has been playing soccer since he was 7, has played with many goalies in his career, and he knows how their minds work.

“It seems like it’s all your fault when you’re the goalie,” said Katz, who is the leader of Powell’s back line. “But really, if we’re doing our job (the opponent) shouldn’t get any shots.”

Wagner has started just a handful of games dating back to last season, but the grace period for goalies is short. Now in the first half of his sophomore season, Wagner has had to shoulder more leadership duties.

Katz already has noticed a marked improvement in the second-year player.

“He’s become a lot more confident, and he’s controlling the team,” Katz said. “He’s really found his place.”

Katz mentioned little about Wagner’s physical skill, furthering the notion that being an effective keeper is a majorly mental task.

“We’ve had trouble in the past with goalies who get too down after a goal and play like crap afterwards,” Katz said.

But Wagner has learned to shake it off, with Katz’ assistance.

“Last year, whenever I got scored on, (Katz) goes, ‘It’s not your fault,’ when it probably was my fault,” Wagner said. “He was trying to take it off my shoulders.”

And when the ball stops with a Wagner save, Katz is sure to let his keeper know the team appreciates the effort.

“I’m always going up to him going like, ‘My bad. Good save. Way to save our butts,’” Katz said.

The defensive-minded duo share the burden of orchestrating the defense.

“I’ve learned a lot from Noah,” Wagner said. “We both look at it from a standpoint that we’re ahead of the game. We’re not thinking in the past, we’re not thinking, ‘Oh, we just got scored on.’ We’re thinking about what’s coming next, what we need to get ready for.”

Both play critical leadership roles on the team, and they sometimes act more like coaches than players.

During a team film session in early April, a PHS player asked head coach Travis Rapp, “When Noah and Sean are telling me where to mark, do I listen to them or do I listen to you?”

Rapp responded, “Listen to them, because they’re on the field.”

The communication is key, but their leadership begins by example.

“I got to say, ‘Hey, am I doing my job right?’ before I go out there and start yelling at someone else,” Wagner said.

Katz has taken the role of the team’s most vocal player, something more manageable at his position than Wagner’s.

“A lot of the times when there’s a lot of commotion going on, I won’t be yelling at the team to mark up because everything will be going through my mind — where I need to go, where I need to be, how much I need to be doing,” Wagner said.

When Katz is talking, he’s doing more than just barking orders. Once he makes sure every opponent is marked with a Panther defender, he continues to talk so the team remains alert.

The 2013 Panthers were more apt to get down on themselves, Katz said, and the “sour” attitude led to poor play. This year, he’s made it a point to keep a constant dialogue (and occasional monologue) going just to keep the mood up.

“We’ll joke around about things to keep our heads in the games,” Katz said. “Just stuff to keep it light ... and keep everybody talking.”

If an overheard conversation between goalie and sweeper is upbeat, things are probably going well for that team.

“One game I tripped over thin air and (Wagner) made fun of me for the rest of the game,” Katz said.

Whether they look graceful or not, score or not, or are properly appreciated or not, Wagner and Katz remain content so long as the outcomes continue to go in Powell’s favor.

Neither player has any doubt over the importance of their duties.

“When we lose it’s on me, and when we win it’s on me,” Wagner said. “That’s my job, so I just do my job.”

Katz maintains a similar mindset.

“We won’t ever lose if they never score,” Katz said. “When I score, it’s exciting. But I enjoy it more when I beat somebody on defense.”

But even that doesn’t compare to the back line playing so well that Wagner is just plain bored.

“When I turn around and look at Sean and he’s just standing there with his arms crossed, that makes me happy,” Katz said.

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