Three weeks after leading Bishop Guilfoyle Catholic to its fourth appearance in the PIAA Class 1A championship game, Justin Wheeler has been named the Altoona Mirror Coach of the Year.
Wheeler’s team went 8-2 in the regular season and earned the top seed in the District 6 playoffs with the help of a late-season victory over District 5 Class 2A champion Chestnut Ridge. The Marauders went on to beat Bishop McCort and Saltsburg before avenging last season’s playoff loss to Juniata Valley in the district final.
“It was an incredible season because of how we won games and how hard these guys fought and battled all season,” Wheeler said.
The Marauders survived in an 11-7 thriller over Lackawanna Trail in the semifinals before falling to Farrell, 10-7 in overtime, in the state final.
Making it to that stage is not something Wheeler had on his mind when Bishop Guilfoyle was drubbed by Westmont Hilltop in the second week of the season.
“Probably not at that moment,” Wheeler said. “Even though that’s a program goal, we focus on the week at hand, and we knew we wanted to get better each week. The guys improved every week until the end, and that’s the mark of a great program.”
Star running back Keegan Myrick said Wheeler’s dedication and attention to detail is vital to the Marauders.
“In the playoffs, I don’t think he sleeps at all,” Myrick said. “I talked to his daughter, and she says he’s always up watching film. He’s always getting us that edge we need. We’re never bigger than these teams we see in the state playoffs, but film is where we beat teams, and he makes it easier.”
Wheeler said Bishop Guilfoyle’s 20-14 win over Chestnut Ridge was the team’s turning point.
“Chestnut Ridge was one of those games, we were kind of scraping by,” Wheeler said. “We hadn’t been tested by a team we thought was good, and being down in fourth quarter on the road and coming back to win was a big turning point for our confidence to bump us up to the No. 1 seed.”
Wheeler said what the Marauders have accomplished would be impossible without some help.
“The head coach gets a lot of credit, but to have a good program you have to have great assistant coaches,” Wheeler said. “We have an amazing staff of former college players who really understand the game.”
Wheeler’s 51 total votes and 14 first-place votes led area coaches by a wide margin. Tussey Mountain’s Anthony Sottasante was second with 27 votes.
Glendale’s Dave “Spank” Trexler was third with 18 votes, and Juniata Valley’s Bill Musser, last year’s Altoona Mirror Coach of the Year, finished fourth with 17 votes.