‘I will forever be a Tiger’: Summit High School head football coach bids community farewell; leaves Summit County for Michigan

Summit announces that Paul Lopez from Wichita, Kansas will become the new head coach

Summit High School head coach James Wagner speaks to his players after the Tigers' 56-0 shutout over the Skyview Wolverines on Sept. 3, in Breckenridge.In the offseason, Wagner made the difficult decision to leave Summit after four years for Traverse City West Senior High School in Traverse City, Michigan.
John Hanson/For the Summit Daily News

The Summit High School boys football program will look a little different this fall. Not only will the class of 2023 not be present on the field, but head coach James Wagner will be absent from the Tigers sideline after serving as the head coach for the last four years.

Over the past four years, Wagner has drastically changed the program while also making a huge impact on the school and greater community. Wagner began his Summit High coaching tenure in 2019 when the class of 2023 were freshman and through the years helped shape the student athletes into better football players.

Wagner’s coaching tenure ultimately saw the Tigers have two historic seasons over the past two years. Summit went 7-3 during the 2021 football season and barely missed the Class 3A playoffs. This past fall Summit improved its record to 9-2 and hosted a home playoff game for the first time in over a decade.

Beyond making the playoffs, the 2022 football team also beat Palisade High School for the first time in school history.

Despite the team’s success over the past two seasons, Wagner felt like it was his time to leave the school and football program for a variety of reasons. He officially left for Traverse City West Senior High School in Traverse City, Michigan, during Summit High’s spring break back in April.

“I am the new head football coach at Traverse City,” Wagner said. “It is what they call in Michigan a Division I school which is like a Class 5A school (in Colorado). It is a step up in my career in terms of responsibilities and running a program. It is a new challenge for me.”

Wagner will also serve as the school’s physical education and weights teacher.

Outside of the job giving Wagner a bigger opportunity to grow as a coach, Wagner says he was also drawn to the position because of his family.

“I grew up in northern Michigan and I actually played against Traverse City growing up,” Wagner said. “I had familiarity with the program. I have family here. My mom and dad still live in northern Michigan and my grandparents — who are both 93 — are still here as well. I want (my grandparents) to see a game or two before they pass. I want to share those moments with them. They wouldn’t be able to fly out to Colorado to see a game.”

Summit High varsity football coach James Wagner watches as the Tigers play against the Frederick Golden Eagles defense during the Tiger’s home 3A state football playoff game at Climax Molybdenum Field at Tiger Stadium on Nov. 11, 2022 in Breckenridge. The Tigers fell to the Golden Eagles 41-21.
Jason Connolly/For the Summit Daily News

Wagner also felt like it was time for him to find a place to settle down — somewhere he believes he can realistically grow his life.

“My girlfriend is also from Michigan and we were kind of looking at the future for where we wanted to be and what we could afford,” Wagner said. “We couldn’t really afford to build and grow our lives in Summit County just with the cost of living. Moving back to Michigan made sense for the both of us.”

In fitting fashion, Wagner left with the class he came in with as head coach, even making the trip back to Colorado to see the class of 2023 officially graduate.

“Being able to go out with them at their own graduation was something very special in being able to provide closure for both of us,” Wagner said. “I think it was a very unique and cool opportunity to leave with the class I came in with.”

Some of Wagner’s favorite memories while at Summit High School include the win over Palisade from this past season, the power outage “black out” game during the 2021 season and the small interactions he had with the kids on a daily basis. 

Ultimately, Wagner will always call Summit a second home and he considers the last four years a very special time.

“I will forever be a Tiger,” Wagner said. “I am always rooting for Summit, I am always rooting for those kids. I am very proud of what we built. It will be a second home for me forever. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the coaching staff and the community support that I had. It was a unique and special time for me. I get emotional talking about it. I am going to miss it.”

Summit High School class of 2022 graduate Aidan Collins, left, works with Summit head football coach James Wagner at Tiger Stadium in Breckenridge.
Aidan Collins/Courtesy photo

Wagner is looking forward to joining a big high school football community and continuing to help student athletes grow on and off the field while serving as the head coach of Traverse City West Senior High School.

Summit High School recently announced that they have hired Paul Lopez to replace Wagner as head football coach for the 2023 season.

Lopez most recently served on the coaching staff at Kapaun Mt. Carmel High School in Wichita, Kansas, and previously was the head coach at Wichita South High School. He will soon start summer training with the team ahead of the fall season. 

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