Ryan Wagner's rise to a big-play starting cornerback for Desert Vista was hardly a foregone conclusion when he entered the program as a freshman.

He didn't start at all his freshman year and spent his sophomore year on junior varsity, watching most of the action from the sidelines.

"I barely played, and I wasn't sure the coaches knew anything about me," Wagner said. "I didn't get frustrated and never wanted to quit. I kept working so I'd be ready when I got the chance."

It came last year when he was elevated from JV reserve to starting cornerback for every game on a 10-3 squad that was one win away from making the state championship game.

A big leap, if there ever was one, and it continues tonight as the Thunder (6-1) travel to Mesquite (3-4).

"Not sure anyone saw that happening, but he worked his tail off," senior two-way linemen J.J. Dielman said. "He got in there and competed, and we knew we could count him."

Wagner hit a bit of a growth spurt but was still on the small side, at 5-foot-11 and 160 pounds, as a junior he was fourth on the team in tackles and had two interceptions, including one he took back 59 yards for a score in the 31-28 win over Mesa Mountain View in the first round of the playoffs.

It was a season that was similar to the Thunder's path in that it came out of nowhere. No one may be more surprised about Wagner than the team's head coach.

There was a time when Dan Hinds might have been leery of putting Wagner on the field back when the latter could have been mistaken for a middle schooler.

"I don't know if I have ever seen a kid develop physically quite like he did," Hinds said. "He was a really small guy as a freshman. I remember throwing balls at him his freshman year and thinking he'd never see the field. "

Wagner, on the hand, loved the game and knew if he was given a chance he'd be up to the challenge.

"I worked hard to make sure I was ready," he said of heading into his junior year. "I knew there was a spot because there wasn't a senior. It was up to me to earn it, and I did the best I could once I got in there."

While he didn't have much experience to lean on last season, this year has been about building on everything he learned. His counterpart, Matt Smith, gives the Thunder one of the best set of corners in the state.

"We have been friends since the sixth grade and I never thought we'd be starting at the same position in high school," Smith said. "He played his way into a starter and we helped each other a lot last year, and now he is a different player."

It takes a special player to be successful at cornerback because it takes someone who is highly athletic and can run with some of the opposition's best players, while having the ability to understand there are going to be times where they will get burned.

Wagner, now 6-1 and 180, has continued his big-play ways as he returned an interception for a touchdown against Mountain Pointe for a 30-yard score, and during the furious comeback against Saguaro, he snagged another errant pass to keep momentum on the Thunder's side.

Not bad for a kid who couldn't crack the lineup on the lower levels of the program.

"I love football and want to keep playing," Wagner said. "I knew I had to get bigger in the offseason. I worked hard and drank a lot of protein shakes. I'm not sure about colleges right now because I really haven't heard much. I'll play for a (junior college) if that is what it takes. I feel like I am just starting to get better because I really didn't start playing until last year."

Contact writer: (480) 898-7915 or jskoda@ahwatukee.com.

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