Bella Wagner came into her own as a junior with the Wittenberg University field hockey team, in large part to remaining healthy for the entire season.

The 2015 Hilliard Bradley High School graduate battled through injuries to her iliotibial (IT) bands and quadriceps in 2016, but bounced back with the Tigers last fall to be named first-team all-North Coast Athletic Conference.

"It helped that I wasn't injured," Wagner said of receiving all-conference honors. "I worked with the trainer on strength and conditioning, and I used kinesiology tape to get back to where I needed to be."

Wagner, a midfielder/forward, started nine of 18 games as a freshman, recording two goals and four assists. Injuries took their toll during her sophomore season, in which she scored one goal and started just one of 19 games.

Last fall, Wagner rebounded by starting all 20 of Wittenberg's games, posting four goals and one assist as the Tigers finished 14-6 overall and went 10-4 in the NCAC to place third behind co-champions Denison and Kenyon (both 12-2).

"Bella primarily played in the midfield for us last year and is highly skilled and extremely analytical in both practice and games," Wittenberg coach Kelley Hubbell said. "She can break down her opponents and find creative ways to create an attack for us.

"She has a wicked shot and she really builds things for us in the midfield. She can score, but also can distribute the ball as well and she gets back strong on defense."

Wagner started playing field hockey when she was in the eighth grade and quickly fell in love with the sport. She had previously played soccer, but believed she was better-suited using a stick instead of her feet.

"I think field hockey is similar to soccer because you get to work with your teammates and get to know their strengths," Wagner said. "I think it is a little different with field hockey. I'm better at using my hand skills than feet. Also, learning new stick skills and trick shots were fun to me."

Bradley does not have a field hockey program, so throughout high school Wagner played with the Hilliard Lynx, which featured players from all three Hilliard high schools. She also played with a club team during the offseason to improve her game.

"I think the biggest transition from high school to college was speed of play," Wagner said. "College field hockey is a lot faster and a lot more aggressive.

"I think you learn the basics in high school and then learn to hone your skills in college. You get to have a better mastery of the game than in high school."

Wagner said the strength of her game is being able figure out whether to shoot the ball or find her open teammates.

"I have good vision and I can see the passes or the off-ball movement," she said. "I played high school and club and that experience helped me read plays better. I can step back and see the field and figure out where to pass. Sometimes passing forward isn't always best. Sometimes it's better to go back than ahead of you."

Hubbell said Wagner has grown on and off the field during her time at Wittenberg.

"Bella has caught up with the speed of the game," Hubbell said. "The biggest jump in the college game from high school is being able to eliminate defenders, and she is learning to do that. She looks after her teammates and challenges them. She's hardworking and leads everyone by example.

"Off the field, she is a bright young woman studying tough academics and doing well."

Wagner is studying biochemistry and molecular biology and carries a 3.3 GPA. Her curriculum is geared toward attending medical school.

She credits playing field hockey as being an important part of her academic success.

"I think time management is always a key, and having field hockey in the fall was a big help," she said. "I had to learn time management right off the bat as a freshman. That kind of carried over (into the other semesters)."

shennen@thisweeknews.com

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