MARION, Va. – Margaret Wagner knows challenges.
Over the past four years, the 5-foot-4 Marion High School senior confounded much taller opponents by charging into the lane for layups in basketball or soaring to block the shots of hitters on the volleyball court.
Nothing could have prepared Wagner for the life-altering challenge she confronted on Feb. 9, 2014.
That was the night when Sam “Kokie” Wagner, Margaret’s father, died suddenly in Marion.
Fight or Flee
Kokie Wagner, 54, was a multi-talented athlete who held Marion’s single-season rushing record for more than three decades and was inducted into the Smyth County Sports Hall of Fame in 2011. He served as the director of the Marion Recreation Department from 2000 until his death.
“That was my freshman year,” Margaret said. “It was a tough time for myself, my brothers and my mom, but we chose to let it make us stronger as family. And it has.”
Wagner was survived by his wife of 25 years, Ellen, and their three children in Margaret, Sam and Marshall.
True to her fearless style, Margaret Wagner never wavered in discussing a nightmare that rocked an entire community.
“Even though that did happen, I realized that I was lucky to be alive and lucky to have the brothers and mom I have,” Wagner said. “I never felt sorry for myself.”
Wagner credited her mom, who has attended every one of Margaret’s games, soccer matches and track meets, for being the stable beacon that guided her family through bright days and dark nights.
“Mom was so strong for us when dad died,” Wagner said. “She never took his clothes out of the closet or stopped talking about him. That helped. Dad is still part of our lives.”
Marion senior Callee Cox has unique insight on the Wagner story.
A 5-foot-10 jumping jack, Cox was named the VHSL 2A state volleyball player of the year after guiding Scarlet Hurricanes to the 2A state title this fall. Cox, who has also won four state titles in the high jump and long jump and has signed to compete in track and field at James Madison University, said she has been tight with Wagner from the first day of kindergarten when her future best friend walked over to wipe away her tears.
“Margaret and I have been through a lot together, and it was just an awful night when Margaret’s father died,” Cox said. “I went over to her house and she just broke down in my arms. Margaret didn’t know why it happened. Nobody knew why and we’ll never know why.
“But after a couple days, Margaret was like ‘I have to get up and get over it.’ She was so brave during that time, looking out for her mom and her brothers. Nothing stops Margaret.”
Margaret the Great
If one judges success solely by numbers, Wagner is far ahead of the pack.
In addition to having a 4.23 grade point average, Wagner surpassed the 1,000 career point mark in basketball as a junior en route to becoming the all-time leading scorer in the history of the Marion girls program.
She also holds the school record for career digs in volleyball and earned all-state honors in the long jump last year as a junior.
According to Marion volleyball coach Amanda Hanshew, the true measure of Wagner is in her leadership and unselfish approach to life.
“Margaret goes above and beyond expectations,” Hanshew said. “She has made an impact in my life and she has really touched me in various ways.”
Wagner was a defensive specialist in volleyball, but she was willing to do any task required.
“I don’t think there is anything that Margaret is afraid to take on, including some of the biggest blockers in the state,” Hanshew said. “I could probably tell Margaret to run through a wall and she would try it.”
Even with her warrior traits, Hanshew said Wagner does have a gentler side.
“Margaret is a strong individual and puts up a good front, but she’s human just like everybody and there are days when she does break down,” Hanshew said. “I feel privileged that she trusts me enough to come and admit that she’s having a bad day.”
Like Cox, Hanshew marvels at the way Wagner responded to the worst day in her life.
“I learned a lot from the way Margaret persevered through everything,” Hanshew said. “She could have just rolled over and said ‘poor me, I’m done’ but she stepped up and played in a basketball game later in that same week.
“She never wants to let anybody down.
Wagner said there is a simple answer why she returned back to the basketball court so soon. She wanted to honor her father in the way she could.
“My entire family was there that night and everyone had on a shirt with my father’s old number,” Wagner said. “Having the support of so many people helped me through that experience.”
Wagner credits her mental and physical toughness from growing up with two brothers. Sam and Marshall were both football stars at Marion, and Sam is now a fan favorite as a running back at Emory & Henry.
“Oh yes, those backyard football games with Sam and Marshall were rugged,” Wagner said. “They didn’t take it easy on me because I was the girl in the family.
“We went at it every day in the summer. I’m thankful for that experience. It gave me the motivation to compete on the high school level.”
It was a natural fit when Wagner was selected to serve as a team captain in basketball and volleyball in addition to serving as the student council president, according to Marion girls basketball coach and athletic director Sallie Moss.
“In all my years of coaching and teaching, I’ve never really met another child like Margaret,” Moss said. “Even as a freshman, Margaret was not afraid to talk to the team or stand up for what is right.”
Moss said that her indomitable team leader even helped navigate the trials associated with high school coaching.
“The job of a coach can be stressful at times, but without a doubt I found strength through Margaret,” Moss said. “What she has accomplished as a student and athlete is impressive, and she has been just as valuable as a friend and mentor to others.
“Margaret has left quite a legacy and I feel honored to have been part of it. Margaret has a strong support system, but she’s one in a million.”
Marion principal Mike Davidson said he will never lack for a case study to inspire his future students.
“Margaret is one of the most respectful persons I’ve ever met,” Davidson said. “If Margaret is speaking to someone, she maintains eye contact and lets you know that what you have to say is important.
“Margaret hasn’t always had an easy life, but she’s made the most of her ability and talents.”
Full Speed Ahead
Wagner will attend Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, this fall. After working with special kids need in the Marion area, Wagner has developed an interest in audiology.
“I got excited to talking to those kids and watching their eyes light up,” Wagner said. “I’m super thankful to have had that experience.”
During her glory run as an athlete, Wagner fought through a broken nose, a concussion, knee problems and a finger injury that forced her to wear a brace.
As for her legacy and long term plans, Wagner prefers to keep things basic. She decided to play soccer this spring simply to be part of a team one last time.
“It’s never been about stats or records for me,” she said. “I’m proud of everything I’ve done with my teammates, and I feel fortune to have had the help I’ve had from Coach Hanshew and Coach Moss.”
Through heartbreak and pain, Wagner never gave up.
“When you lost a family member, you either respond in a negative or positive way,” Wagner said. “I’m not going to say that I am always happy and I never think of what happened in my freshman year because I know there’s nothing I can do about it.
“I’ve always wanted to be strong for my family. Mom was always there for me and my brothers, and I will never forget that. In the future, I just want to help people any way I can.”