After several years of competing in the Rhode Island Interscholastic League (RIIL), Wheeler Athletics will be returning to the New England Preparatory School Athletic Council (NEPSAC) next academic year. Our teams will begin competing in the NEPSAC in the fall of 2022. We talked with Athletics Director Sean Kelly ‘02 P’35 to learn more about what the move means for our teams and student-athletes.
Why is Wheeler leaving the RIIL for NEPSAC, and why now?
Before 2016, Wheeler was a proud member of both the RIIL and the NEPSAC. At the time six years ago, when the RIIL suggested that independent and charter schools would need to be “all in” or “all out,” we felt that making a full commitment to the RIIL was best for our athletic programs and the school as a whole. However, over the last six seasons, we have taken a closer look at the effects of joining the RIIL on our overall student experience and its impact on athletic programming and classroom learning.
While both leagues offer competitive opportunities that are very comparable for our student-athletes and coaches, we believe that the NEPSAC model best fits our academic program, school calendar, and the mission of our Athletics program. Additionally, the NEPSAC affords Wheeler Athletics an opportunity to have more autonomy with our scheduling. In turn, this provides Wheeler with the ability to formulate schedules that are more aligned with each program’s (varsity and JV) skillsets, and experience in any given year.
We are grateful for our time in the RIIL but feel that this opportunity to once again be a member of the NEPSAC will allow for a more consistent student-athlete experience not only for some of our stronger programs, but also those programs that are either rebuilding, growing, or transitioning.
Is Wheeler doing this, in part, to be more competitive across sports?
Since Wheeler transitioned to the RIIL in 2016, the school has won 17 state championships. With that said, some of Wheeler’s programs have also endured the challenges of “realignment,” where Wheeler was placed in RIIL divisions based on their previous success. In many cases, that left Wheeler’s teams facing teams with much greater depth pulled from larger high school enrollments. By comparison, the NEPSAC classification model is based on enrollment. This classification approach, coupled with the opportunity to have more scheduling autonomy, will help Wheeler allow our stronger programs to continue flourishing while we also provide an overall positive and more consistent experience for our developing programs.
What does this mean for travel and schedule when it comes to our athletics teams? How far away will away games be?
Many familiar athletic foes compete in the NEPSAC – St. Andrews, Rocky Hill, Portsmouth Abbey and St. George’s are a few examples. One of the appealing things about the RIIL, when we joined the league a few years ago, was the opportunity to play games a bit closer to home; however, with later start times for many of the RIIL away games, we found that students were getting home later and later during the school week, which created its own challenges.
With the ability to control our schedule in NEPSAC, Wheeler will be able to schedule games against local independent schools as well as non-league games against RIIL member schools in nearby towns and cities.
In short, by joining NEPSAC, there might be an additional two or three games on the schedule for teams each season that are roughly one hour away, but there will be just as many games on campus and at nearby schools!
Will Wheeler still play against some of the RIIL schools with whom it has a long-standing athletics relationship?
Yes! We are excited to maintain those great relationships we have developed, not just over the last six years, but during our entire time as members of the RIIL community.
What will happen to our co-op football and ice hockey teams? Will they remain in the RIIL?
Our hope is that those teams can continue to compete in the cooperative programs with Juanita Sanchez and PCD (football) as well as St. Raphael’s and PCD (boys ice hockey). We truly value the experiences we’ve had in those programs and the relationships we have built with those communities. Wheeler requested to be an affiliate member of the RIIL in these sports so that those relationships can continue, but our request, unfortunately, was denied. However, we have been told that our student-athletes who are part of the co-op football and ice hockey teams can continue to compete in those teams through their graduation from Wheeler
What impact, whether positive or negative, will this move have on college athletics recruitment?
Most colleges are evaluating prospective athletes through an athlete’s participation in travel/tournament team programs beyond their participation in their high school varsity program. However, Wheeler’s ability to compete against schools beyond the geographic confines of the RIIL will help many of our athletes gain greater regional visibility even while playing for their high school team. We expect that the move to the NEPSAC will be an overwhelmingly positive one for our student-athletes.
Will Wheeler join a specific league in NEPSAC, or will it be an independent NEPSAC member?
We are still exploring the possibility of a league affiliation in the NEPSAC, and we feel confident that we can offer a very strong athletics experience with or without that league affiliation. For those families who were part of our community when we were previously a NEPSAC member, I should note that a return to the SENE, which was our NEPSAC home for many years, is unlikely. Many of the original schools in that league have since changed their sports affiliations. That said, one benefit to joining the NEPSAC is that it provides us with the opportunity to compete for a New England Championship, which will give Wheeler teams a playoff-like experience late in the year no matter what league we join and regardless of whether we have a NEPSAC league affiliation.