When he was a Wheeler student-athlete in two sports, Sean Kelly ‘02 P’35 became Wheeler’s all-time basketball scoring leader. After a successful college basketball career, Kelly embraced the role of education in his life. Inspired by his own experience at Wheeler, he returned to grad school and taught at the same time before returning to Wheeler to teach English, work in the Enrollment office, and coach basketball. Today, he’s the school’s Athletics Director and an award-winning coach. We talked with him about the Wheeler Athletics program and his own experience, from multiple vantage points, at the school.
Q: Let’s start by talking about your role as Director of Athletics and your experience at Wheeler. What are your responsibilities,and what first attracted you to the position and Wheeler?
A: This is now my 12th year working at Wheeler, and I was previously a student here for five years. Between the combination of those 17 years, I feel like I’ve worn dozens of different hats, so my existence both personally and professionally is sort of a microcosm of the Wheeler experience. It’s an “and” place – where you can be a basketball coach and an English teacher, and you can do both well. As a student, you can be someone who stands out in a ceramics class and be the star shortstop on the softball team. That is something that I find really attractive to me professionally, and also as a parent with a child who is currently attending Pre-K in The Nest program. There’s a consistency with the leadership experience as well, where there’s this palpable energy around you. It really gives you not only an affirmation that this is a place where you can cultivate great ideas, success, and excellence, but it’s also inspiring. Whether you’re a student, a student-athlete, or a professional, you just always seem to feel it.
This is my second year as Director of Athletics, and I also worked in the enrollment office for a decade. I taught English for 10 years, I was an advisor for nine years and dean of the senior class at one point, and I’ve coached basketball for the full 12 years I’ve worked here. What Wheeler has allowed me to do professionally is what we allow our students to do. If there is something you have an interest in, we find a way to make that happen, and if there’s something you’re passionate about, we have the resources in place for you to pursue that passion as rigorously as you want.
Q: What is Wheeler’s approach to balancing athletics and academics?
A: One of the many benefits of Wheeler is how well our community operates and how well we communicate. Not a day goes by without me having a conversation with a coach, or an administrator, or a teacher about our students and how to create the best possible experience for them–we just find ways to make that happen. The one thing that I’ve taken really great pride in during these first two years as the AD is making sure that our athletics experience reflects the experience our students have in the classroom. That expectation is there for our coaches and, in all the same ways, places like fields and courts are classrooms, too. What’s great about Wheeler is that, as much as we value winning, what we really value is creating a positive experience where athletes can grow individually and collectively and become students of the game.
Q: Wheeler athletes are able to use a variety of facilities at both the Providence campus and the 120-acre Wheeler Farm. What makes these facilities special–in particular at Wheeler Farm?
A: That outdoor space is one of the most unique things we offer. It affords us the opportunity to have multiple sports and teams from different divisions playing simultaneously. What’s also great is that it’s a nice way to reinforce who we are as a community in the process, as Middle School sports can be happening one field over from Upper School tennis. When a practice ends, it’s really easy for one team to go over and cheer for another team who might be finishing a game or match. For Middle School student-athletes in particular, they get a genuine sense of what that Upper School athletic experience is like.
We offer a state-of-the-art turf field that is about four years old and is the first of its kind throughout New England and made with sustainable materials. Our facilities also include an indoor field house with three full basketball courts, and eight outdoor fields consisting of four soccer fields, baseball and softball fields, and two field hockey fields. We have eight tennis courts, which is more than any other independent school in Rhode Island.
Just having that space out there at the Wheeler Farm gives us ample opportunity to do so many different things. When I was a student here, the farm was something that, despite having been around for many years, was really in the embryonic stages of development and possibility. Over the last 20 years, students have viewed the farm as a place that is more than just athletics. It is an opportunity to unwind at the end of the day and is the perfect complement to the city campus and that city feel. (Not seeing the video below? Please be sure to accept cookies on this site, or if you prefer, you can watch the video directly on Youtube.)
Q: Is there an underlying philosophy guiding Wheeler’s coaching staff?
A: The coaches here are cognizant of the fact that our athletes are, at the end of the day, students-athletes, and we value that combination in ways that some of our rival schools might not fully embrace. So much of what makes Wheeler special is the relationships that exist between coaches and players and the opportunities to grow those relationships during their time here. Whether it’s a single season for a student-athlete who might be interested in playing a sport for fun or trying it out for the first time, or a passionate student-athlete who anticipates competing at the next level in college, our coaches have the experience and skill set to challenge and connect with all types of student-athletes. We have a particularly high number of varsity coaches who were successful collegiate athletes, which plays a significant role in their deep understanding of the sports they coach. I think the personal attention that we have as mentors really comes to fruition when you see the interaction between our student-athletes and our teachers and coaches. Whether it’s basketball, soccer, or golf, I have such confidence in who our coaches are, and seeing them in action is the best way to see how far they go for these students.
Q: How do you see athletics at Wheeler evolving in the coming years?
A: The COVID-19 pandemic helped our athletics department tackle an urgent question: “How do we embrace change and make athletics better?” The most obvious change is definitely our approach to technology. One thing I’ve always appreciated as a coach and teacher at Wheeler , and now as an administrator, is that we have special kids here–they are smart and they have the ability to “think” within the games. More broadly, I would love to see us begin to integrate some of the technology into the teaching and understanding aspect of our programs. Regardless of their physical skill sets, what I’ve found at Wheeler is we have kids that see and appreciate the game on a level well beyond wins and losses. Through the Aerie enrichment program, we’ve had students that have worked with high-end analytics, student managers involved in film editing, and students that are interested in things like broadcast journalism and announcing games. There’s a really cool intersection there that I think can take off through Aerie.
For more information about Wheeler Athletics, visit the program’s website and follow the Wheeler Warriors on Twitter and Instagram to see updates on games and player profiles. We also invite you to read about Wheeler Athletics’ recent return to the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC).