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As one of the state's top female wrestlers, Northfield's Ella Pagel is a two-time state champion and enjoys a lofty national reputation and a high national ranking.

She hasn't lost a high school match in two years, and she's the only 165-pound high school champ the state has ever known.

Pagel is the All-Metro Sports Award Female Athlete of the Year for 2023, and she could have won it on her wrestling achievements alone.

But Pagel, who will be a junior in the upcoming school year, piled on, and she isn't shy about revealing that the most thrilling moment in her athletic career didn't involve wrestling.

It came on a crisp evening in September. A running back and linebacker for the Northfield football team, the 5-9, 170-pound Pagel took her position in the backfield midway through the fourth quarter of a game against New Prague.

The Raiders led by 28 points and were at the New Prague 5-yard line. That's when Pagel's father, Bob, the former football head coach at Carleton and now the Northfield offensive coordinator, called his daughter's number.

Lined up in a split backfield, she took the handoff and slanted off right tackle. Behind impeccable blocking, she accelerated through the hole and burst into the end zone for a touchdown, her first (and still only) varsity score.

"I've never experienced such excitement before," she said. "I got the ball, I saw the end zone and I wanted it. I'm going to be honest: my love for football is more than for wrestling. It's my number one sport."

It's difficult to overplay the significance of Pagel's run to pay dirt. This was not some third-stringer getting in the game in the waning seconds or kicking an extra point or showing up on the kickoff coverage team.

This was a girl playing a skill position well enough to score a touchdown in a varsity game.

"It's gotten harder as I've gotten older, getting the upperclassmen to accept me," said Pagel, who has played tackle football since sixth grade. "It really made me feel like a part of the team."

Don't mistake Pagel's affection for the gridiron as a lack of passion for wrestling. But she has spent so much of her life in wrestling rooms that it's simply human nature to relish a change of scenery.

She has reached such a level of wrestling competency — in March, she stood No. 13 overall and No. 1 at 164 pounds in the national girls wrestling rankings — that she has streamlined her formerly intense workout routine. A labrum injury also played a role.

She's not working harder, she's working smarter.

"As I've gotten older, and particularly since my injury, I've figured out how my body works," she said. "I have wrestling practice three times a week, and the other days are for working out, lifting weights."

Proud of what she has accomplished in the two seasons that girls wrestling has been an MSHSL-sanctioned sport, Pagel sees her championship last year as another step to greater success.

"I don't think it was that big a deal. My goals are so much higher," she said. "I mean, it's still really awesome in wrestling, where everyone works so hard, but to me it felt like just another day of getting stuff done."

She paused, then stressed that she is not demeaning wrestling. After all, wrestling is her future.

"I look up to all of them and what they've accomplished for girls wrestling," she said. "I even look up to the elementary school ones, who are in the wrestling room every day. I love their energy and their commitment. They want to be there."

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Special celebration

The Star Tribune's sixth annual All-Metro Sports Awards show will be held June 28, and this year's event will be at Target Center. The winners of 10 special AMSA honors will be introduced, capping an evening of celebrating outstanding student-athletes and those who support them. The public is welcome to join the celebration, and tickets for the event are available at startribune.com/amsa.

More All-Metro Sports Awards coverage can be found at startribune.com/preps.