Peers Name Soccer Coach NESCAC Coach of the Year

Geoff Wheeler, men’s head soccer coach, led Wesleyan to its first New England Small College Athletic Conference Championship this fall.
Posted 12/02/05
Q: Just incase our audience hasn’t heard the big news, can you tell us why you and the men’s soccer team has been celebrating recently?


A: Wesleyan captured its first ever New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC) Championship in any sport when the men’s soccer team defeated Amherst and Williams in the same weekend. As the No. 7 seed in the tournament, we upset No. 2 Bowdoin in the first round before going on to defeat No. 1 Williams in the semi-finals and then No. 4 Amherst in the finals. The victory over Williams marked the first triumph over the Williams Ephs since 1992. With the championship came an automatic bid to the NCAA Division III tournament, another first for the program. The men’s team defeated Muhlenberg in a thrilling 3-2 overtime victory before falling to No. 1 seed and defending national champs Messiah 2-1 in overtime in the second round. 


Q: Who were your key players?

A: Accompanying the success came some appropriate post-season honors, including NESCAC Rookie of the Year for Matt Nevin ’09, who finished the campaign with nine goals and five assists.  Earning 2nd Team All-NESCAC honors was Jared Ashe ’07, who made the move from forward to defender early in the year.


Q: I heard you were honored by your peers, as well


A: They named me the NESCAC Coach of the Year.  


Q: In 2004, Wesleyan qualified for its fifth consecutive NESCAC tournament, earning a top four spot and a home playoff game for the first time in the program’s history. At that point did you foresee the team making it so far this season?


A: Although we graduated a strong class of eight seniors from the 2005 team, this 2005 squad had all the talent to make the run we did. We certainly had questions at the beginning of the year but the players answered them all with undeniable commitment and certainty. Our co-captain seniors Noah Isaacs ‘06 and Kevin Lohela ‘06 did a fantastic job leading this young but talented group.


Q: When were you hired at Wesleyan as the head men’s soccer coach? How did you feel stepping into the shoes of long-time head coach Terry Jackson, who might accurately be regarded as a legend in the annals of Wesleyan soccer?


A: I was hired as the men’s coach in the spring of 1999. And what an honor to succeed Terry Jackson, not only a legend in Wesleyan soccer lore but also an icon in the soccer community at large. In fact, when I was a senior in high school, I visited Wesleyan and met with Coach Jackson. I remember how friendly and warm he was as we toured Wesleyan. Never did I think I would have the opportunity to return not as a student but as a coach. Just as Coach Jackson was so kind during my high school days, he has been equally supportive as I have attempted to carry on the strong Wesleyan soccer tradition he built. 


Q: At Dartmouth, you were a four-year letter-winner in soccer, helping the squad qualify for the NCAA tournament twice as well as capture two Ivy League titles. What skills and lessons do you bring from your own experience and stress to your team?


A: “It’s what we do. It’s the wee things.”  These quotes sum up the lessons I learned at Dartmouth and what I try to pass on to my players every day. When we play, we try to focus all our energy on our work rate, our attitude and our reaction to adversity. There’s not much we can do about the referee, the weather, the field or even the other team so we focus on what we can control. When we travel, we look sharp in coats and ties. We leave a clean locker room after a game, a clean bench.


Q: What did you major in at Dartmouth? What made you decide to become a coach?


A: I was a history major at Dartmouth with a concentration on 20th century American history. I decided to coach when I realized that I may be lucky enough to do it for a living. It’s hard to believe I get paid for what I do. I had so many good coaches growing up that when it came time to figure out a direction I wanted to take, I thought of those people who had influenced me most – my coaches. It was a natural progression from playing the game I love to also coaching it.


Q: After college, you played in Zimbabwe? What other teams did you play for before becoming a coach?


A: After college, I had a unique opportunity to play in Zimbabwe where my college coach had actually previously coached. For a year, I played for the Bulawayo Highlanders, a member of the SuperLeague in Zimbabwe. When I returned to the States, I had stints with several semi-pro teams, including the Cape Cod Crusaders of the United Systems of Independent Soccer Leagues (USISL), as well as the Connecticut Wolves and the Boston Bulldogs of the A-League. Now, I play for an over-30s team based in Westport and am constantly reminded it always looks pretty easy from the sideline!


Q: I understand you have played soccer professionally, even while you were coaching at Wesleyan. How would you describe that experience?


A:  When I first arrived at Wesleyan, I thought I could both play at a high level and coach at Wesleyan. I played in Boston for a short time after I arrived, making the commute up I-84 three to four times a week. When the Wesleyan season approached in August, I had to stop playing and commit myself to the team here. The next year I joined the local team, the Wolves. On both teams, I was exposed to different coaches and different styles, picking up bits and pieces that I could bring back to the Wesleyan squad. Ultimately, I needed to step away from my playing days to become a more effective coach but I certainly think my professional playing experience has helped develop my coaching abilities.


Q: You currently hold a United States Soccer Federation license and received an advanced national diploma from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America in 1998. Are these required to coach?


A:  Fortunately, you do not need a license to coach, but it does help when you are applying for jobs!  I currently have an ‘A’ license from the United States Soccer Federation and was recently awarded a Premier Diploma from the National Soccer Coaches Association of America in January of 2005. 


Q: As a player at Dartmouth and an assistant coach at Stanford, you have always been around high-achieving college athletes. How do Wesleyan’s student-athletes compare with those you have seen at these other colleges?


A: Wesleyan student-athletes hold the same values I encountered at both Dartmouth and Stanford.  They are all highly-motivated individuals who excel on and off the field.


Q: Are you still the co-director of the East Coast Soccer Academy? How long have you be doing it?


A: Yes, I am still co-director. It was founded in the summer of 2001 when Brian Tompkins, the Yale Men’s Soccer Coach, and I decided we wanted to bring top student-athletes to our campuses and expose them to our schools as well as our coaching staffs. Both of us have benefited immensely from the camp and there are currently over 10 graduates of the East Cost Soccer Academy on the Wes team.


Q: How did you get into the sport? How old were you?


A: I first started playing when I was 5-years-old. I started playing with the Vista Vampires in Portland, Oregon and have played ever since.


Q: In addition to coaching, what physical education classes do you teach as an adjunct assistant professor of physical education? Do you enjoy working with students at all skill levels?


A: I currently teach squash and indoor technical climbing. It’s great to get to know another part of the Wesleyan student body through the PE classes. The rate of improvement is often great among the students who take the classes – it’s always enjoyable to teach a sport to someone who has never tried it, whether it’s soccer, squash or climbing.


Q: Rumor has it that you have become quite a squash player since arriving at Wesleyan while serving as the men’s assistant coach. Is squash now your number two sport behind soccer?


A: Squash is a great winter game. After years of chasing the ball around the court trying to keep up with the college kids, I have managed to learn a few things along the way. Former squash and tennis coach Don Long was a great teacher when I first started and now I enjoy competitive games with several other coaches as well as a few faculty members up campus. 


Q: Is it true you met your wife at Wesleyan? And I hear your son, Sam, is the darling of the athletic department.


A: Holly, who is the head coach of the women’s Lacrosse team, and I started working at Wesleyan at the same time, seven years ago! Unbelievable that is was that long ago now. Our boy Sam of 15 months is often seen raging up and down the hallways of the offices, eager to find new playmates. If you offer him some food, you will find an immediate friend.


Q: Tell me about your hobbies and interests outside of coaching and teaching.


A: Outside of coaching and teaching, I spend a lot of time with family. Holly’s folks live in Boston and mine are up in Maine so we love to go visit them. I have a sister who teaches at Suffield, just over 45 minutes away, and a twin brother in Philly who has three children. Home projects often take up a lot of time as well, including a new deck, a re-finished basement and the taking down of trees in the backyard. When Holly and I find the time, we enjoy taking our kayaks out for a paddle on the nearby lakes. But most of all, we love spending time with Sam!

By Olivia Drake, The Wesleyan Connection editor and Brian Katten, director of sports information