Coast Guard sophomore Jon Wagner wrestles his way to the running back slot

Coast Guard running back Jon Wagner is off to a strong sophomore season for the Bears, who look for their second win on Friday night at Nichols College. (Photo courtesy of CGA athletics)
Coast Guard running back Jon Wagner is off to a strong sophomore season for the Bears, who look for their second win on Friday night at Nichols College. (Photo courtesy of CGA athletics)

New London — Jon Wagner has played three sports all his life, making the transition from football season to wrestling to baseball.

So here he was at Naval Academy Prep in Newport, R.I., following his graduation from Huntingdon (Pa.) High School in 2016. He was preparing for a football career at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and one of the things that Wagner was missing most was ... the smell of wrestling mats?

"I know that sounds weird," Wagner said. "I just missed the sport in general."

Wagner, the 5-foot-10, 210-pound sophomore, is now one of two primary running backs for the Coast Guard football team, which is 1-1 entering Friday's 7 p.m. game at Nichols.

He certainly has flashed moments of wizardry, part of the Bears' 173 yards rushing on opening night in a 33-7 victory over the University of New England, as well as catching five passes for 51 yards. It was enough to open a few eyes after not having carried the ball even once during his freshman season, which was spent partially on defense.

In total, Wagner has 17 carries for a team-high 85 yards and ran for his first career touchdown last week in a 28-10 loss to Union.

He's on his way.

Yet Wagner's greatest athletic achievement so far at Coast Guard has been for the wrestling team. After arriving last fall, he headed for the wrestling mats following football season and placed third at the NCAA Division III Northeast Regional at 197 pounds, earning him a slot the NCAA Championships in Cleveland.

"I would say wrestling helps with every sport you do," said Wagner, whose hometown is close to Penn State, where he followed the Nittany Lions' high-profile wrestling program growing up. "Football to wrestling (as a freshman) was a weird transition. I had missed the first tournament, but I've done that all my life, too, where each season ran into the other.

"... Every athlete's dream in wrestling is to make NCAAs and win a national championship. I was really excited making it to nationals and all that. I was just kind of surprised."

Coast Guard football coach Bill George, once an All-America center at Ithaca College who also wrestled, said his former coach Jim Butterfield always told him, "Life is short. You've got to let them do what they enjoy."

"That's the nature of the Coast Guard Academy. We are a two-sport school," George said.

George is waiting until Wagner finishes his first season at running back to make any declarations about the sophomore's talent. One thing that impressed him, though, was Wagner's level of competition on the football team at NAPS, where future Coast Guard players are sprinkled in with those headed to play for Division I Navy.

Wagner was moved to linebacker at NAPS due to a backup at the running back position. He continued on defense for the bulk of last season until a few injuries at running back forced his move back to the offensive side.

Then he had to learn the playbook for the Bears' no-huddle spread offense.

"Freshman year is tough," Wagner said. "First you have Swab Summer. Then you have military tests every weekend. Last year it was kind of hard. Once I found out that me and Gardner were going to be the two backs (this year), I kind of focused up a little bit."

Union was a tough matchup, strong up front with not too many holes for the backs to hit.

"Each week you have to get a little bigger, a little stronger," said Wagner, who credits his teammates in high school and college for his success. "... I've been fortunate to be surrounded by a good group of guys. The line's been blocking for me. Without them doing their job, I couldn't do mine."

"Jon has deceivingly good balance. He knows where to make his cuts," George said. "Having him and Gardner back there is good."

v.fulkerson@theday.com

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