‘Pretty much priceless’: Merrimack Valley assistant coach Justin Wheeler steps aside after coaching with his brother for 25 years

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 05-24-2023 10:27 PM

It’s not your usual sibling rivalry.

Growing up in East Concord, Justin Wheeler always knew he could look up to his brother Sean, six years his senior. From Wiffle ball in the backyard to Sean rooting him on in Little League games, his brother was always there.

Fast forward to 2023, and the brothers just wrapped up their 21st seasons with Merrimack Valley baseball – Sean as the head coach and Justin as an assistant. And Justin decided that this would be it for him in the coach’s box.

He’s had the chance to watch his two nephews, Griffin and Gavin, rise through the program. With Gavin’s graduation at the end of this school year, this was the right time to step away.

He’ll still always be around baseball diamonds, whether it’s the one at Merrimack Valley or at Memorial Field where he works to maintain the fields for the city of Concord, but it won’t be the same as the quarter-century he got to spend with his brother every single day during baseball season.

“Pretty much priceless,” Wheeler said of being able to share this experience with Sean. “Obviously we’re very close. … Sometimes brothers just kind of go away a little bit when you get in your 20s, but this definitely kept us close for a long time, and that’s very unique. It’s been a great experience for both of us.”

Although this final season for Wheeler didn’t necessarily transpire as anyone affiliated with MV baseball hoped – the Pride entered the final game of the season 4-11 and won’t qualify for the playoffs – Sean emphasized that he couldn’t think of a better group to send out his brother with.

“Obviously we’d like to send him out with more wins; having a four-win season, it’s not ideal,” the older Wheeler said. “But I’ll tell you, I couldn’t ask for a better group of kids for him to go out with. Fantastic group of kids to work with this year.”

‘He kicked my butt a lot’

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While the Wheeler brothers’ dynamic might have been a bit tamer than others when they were younger because of the age gap, that didn’t mean Sean didn’t light a fire under Justin every now and then.

“Being much older and stronger and bigger, he kicked my butt a lot,” Justin said of their time playing Wiffle ball in the backyard. “It actually pushed me. It drove me. You want to beat your brother more than anybody because you want to show him up.”

Still, Sean understood his role as the older brother.

“When I was in high school, he was still in Little League; when I was in college, he was still in high school, so that was a little bit of a gap for us,” Sean said. “It actually worked out well because it wasn’t really that rivalry between us. I was his biggest fan. It was kind of a nice way to grow up.”

Throughout their coaching tenure, which began together at Newport and Laconia before coming to Merrimack Valley, looking across the field and seeing his brother has only made life easier for Sean as the head of the program.

That reliability goes a long way.

“I couldn’t ask for anything more,” Sean said. “It’s the time I spent with my brother the last 2½ decades. He’s been my right-hand man. … He’s been loyal to the program and somebody that I can always count on and that our program can always count on.”

‘The best of everything’

Typically a high school baseball team’s head coach stands in the third-base coach’s box. At MV, Justin Wheeler occupied that responsibility while Sean took the first-base side.

That might seem trivial to the casual observer, but standing on the third-base side means more responsibilities, namely giving signs to hitters and baserunners.

It’s not a job head coaches often delegate, but when you have as much trust in each other as the Wheelers have, it’s an easy decision.

“He advocates for our kids, supports our kids, does a tremendous job,” said Sean. “He coaches the third-base box so, for us, he runs the offense, which takes a little bit off my plate. I trust him to do that, and I can focus on other things.”

One of those things is coaching his son Gavin, a senior on this year’s team.

Gavin’s graduation marks the end of an era for his dad as well, no longer having the chance to coach either of his two sons. Griffin, the older brother, was back with the team as an intern through Colby-Sawyer College. That true family environment in athletics doesn’t typically materialize to the level this one has.

“Selfishly it’s the best of everything for me,” Sean said. “I show at the ballpark, coach the game I love, get to still wear a uniform, and I’m in it with one of my best friends – my brother – and then my two kids. … My parents go to every game; my wife’s at every game; my in-laws are at every game. So it’s been a very nice family atmosphere the last six years.”

Justin will join that list of family taking in MV baseball games as fans starting next season. And while his time as a coach had wound down, his investment in the program will persist.

“This is the time for me to step away. I’m totally fine with it,” Justin said. “But baseball’s my love. It always will be. No doubt.”

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