Mercedes Russell may have gone from Springfield to Tennessee, but she will have some of her hometown’s support system with her as she starts her collegiate career at one of the biggest powerhouses in women’s basketball. Bill Wagner, her former head coach at Springfield High, will be in attendance when the Lady Volunteers take on the North Carolina Tar Heels in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Nov. 11 in a battle of top-10 teams. And he couldn’t be more excited to see her in action on the big stage.
“She’s meant so much to me as far as being able to watch her grow and develop as a young woman and player,” Wagner says. “I felt like I wanted to make sure I saw one of her first college games. It would mean a lot for her, but also it means a lot for us just to go and be able to support her. She traveled cross-country for college and I think it would be nice for her to see some familiar faces.”
Basketball fans not familiar with Russell will be soon. A versatile forward who excels both inside and out on offense, she was considered the nation’s top recruit in the class of 2013 by espnW. This came as no surprise to Wagner, who coached her from her sophomore season on.
“When she was in high school she was so dominant, so ahead of the curve,” he says. “It will be nice to see her play on kind of an evener playing field. I’m just excited to see her. We miss her around here. You could never miss her here on campus, being 6’6”, but just getting go out there and spend some time with her I’m looking forward to that.”
Wagner was not specifically invited to the game against North Carolina by Tennessee; instead, he is taking advantage of the three-day Veterans Day weekend to make the trip with an assistant coach.
“She’s gone through being one of the top recruits in the nation, and having high expectations on her,” Wagner says. “She’s got such a calm demeanor about her that she takes things in stride and goes about her business and doesn’t let a lot of the peripheral stuff bother her. She has this inner drive to succeed and be as good as she possibly can.”
And Wagner will be there to watch Russell and her new team as she tries to continue her success in her first big test against one of the game’s most formidable opponents.