By allowing ads to appear on this site, you support the local businesses who, in turn, support great journalism.
Girls Basketball Coach of the Year: East Hall's Justin Wheeler
Lady Vikings' 1st-year head coach guided team to state playoffs
Placeholder Image

Boys Basketball Player of the Year: Johnson's James Hodges

Girls Basketball Player of the Year: Chestatee's Bridgette Kelly

Boys Basketball Coach of the Year: Johnson's Jeff Steele

Girls All-Area Basketball Team

Boys All-Area Basketball Team 

Justin Wheeler was living out a childhood dream during the high school basketball season. The first-year East Hall girls’ coach admitted that even though the season was filled with up-and-down moments, he was always excited about the opportunity that had been bestowed upon him.

“It was everything I could dream of and more,” Wheeler said. “Each part of the season I got excited. ... You sit back and think, ‘This is really happening.’ It was something I waited for my whole life.”

After a turbulent start to the season that saw the Lady Vikings lose five of their first six games, Wheeler was able to turn around a young East Hall team, which saw multiple sophomores and juniors play the majority of the time.

Under Wheeler’s guidance, the Lady Vikings ended up playing their best basketball of the season when the region tournament came calling in late February. Despite entering the Region 7-AAA tournament with a losing record, the Lady Vikings pulled upsets against Banks County and North Hall to reach the title game, securing a top-two finish in a region that included eventual state runner-up Buford.

The Lady Vikings earned a home playoff game — a commanding 61-36 win over North Murray — before falling in the second round to eventual Class AAA state champion St. Pius X.

For his efforts, Wheeler is The Times’ Girls Coach of the Year.

“The girls, they gave a ton of effort, they gave me 100 percent” Wheeler said. “They practiced so hard. I want to thank them, the parents for supporting me, and God above all.”

A former Division-I wide receiver on the Vanderbilt football team, Wheeler has always had a passion for coaching basketball over football. While playing on the football field was a means to earn a college degree from a prestigious university, Wheeler recognized basketball was going to be his future career. Once his college football career with the Commodores came to an end, he volunteered time during his senior year as a manager with the Vanderbilt men’s basketball team.

“I knew what I wanted to do at about the third grade,” Wheeler said. “When I was done playing football, I knew it was a perfect chance to get with the basketball team, be around the sport I love and to learn from (Vanderbilt coach Kevin) Stallings, and see how things ran in the basketball world.”

He eventually made coaching stops at Georgia State and Peachtree Ridge High in Gwinnett County, where he served as the head coach of the ninth grade girls.

When the opportunity from East Hall came his way prior to the start of this school year, it was something the 27-year-old Wheeler couldn’t pass up.

Once in Gainesville, Wheeler inherited a young team and he knew his first season could be a challenge. He admitted he thought a top-four finish in the region would classify as a successful season. As it turns out, the Lady Vikings ended up exceeding their coach’s expectations.

“I think so, as far as the outside perspective,” Wheeler said. “Of course, on the inside, every game you play you want to win. No matter who is on the court, we are trying to beat them.

“I think us finishing second, we just clicked at the end of the year. We just figured out what we wanted to do and what we needed to do to win.”

The genesis of East Hall’s late-season run dates back to Christmas break, when the Lady Vikings won the Carolina Invitational Holiday Tournament in North Charleston, S.C. They entered the tournament with a mere 1-5 record, but managed three straight victories to earn the championship.

“Once we hit the road, you could tell the girls were relaxed a little bit,” Wheeler said. “I told them, ‘I just want you to play like we practice.’ And I think that helped them relax a little bit. We went out there and we played with more intensity.”

That intensity carried over into the region schedule and well into the region tournament, too.

The Lady Vikings clinched a playoff berth with a 63-56 upset win over Banks County, and a home state playoff game with a 73-49 rout of North Hall.

As he moves forward, Wheeler hopes to rebuild the Lady Vikings into a regional and state power.

“East Hall is the perfect spot for me,” Wheeler said. “I wish you could be at East Hall for a day, with the people I work with. (Boys basketball) Coach (Joe) Dix has been great; Jeff Cooper is probably the best principal in the country.

“If you just work here for a week, you’ll see the people here are great. So that means a lot.”

Friends to Follow social media