Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation

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John Wheelock

Super at St. John
John Wheelock could do it all on some very good Herald squads

By KARL PEARSON
Staff Writer

Sixth of a series...

When he was developing as a basketball player, John Wheelock was fortunate to have plenty of people who were willing to share their time, knowledge and even their courts with him.

He didn't have access to summer camps, open gyms or traveling teams that are prevalent now and even serve as the lifeblood of programs.

What he did have was coaches and players, and not just from his school, St. John, that were willing to give him every opportunity to play and even took him into their homes to give him a means to try and find some way to quench his seemingly boundless thirst for the game.

To be sure, Wheelock is the first to admit the relationships he had at St. John with a coach like Don Cannell and players like Denny Berrier and Billy Johnson were key factors in his life when he was coming up through the ranks with the Heralds from the 1966-67 through the 1968-69 seasons.

"Players like Billy and Denny were my role models when I was at St. Joseph (Elementary)," Wheelock said. "Coach Cannell was my coach for four years. We were always undermanned, and I think we always did the best we could."

But Wheelock's basketball education went well beyond those key figures. In one of the golden eras for the sport, he was fortunate to receive the inspiration and the encouragement of many towering figures from other schools.

"The guy who really got me playing was (Ashtabula's) Bob Walters," he said. "He sort of took me under his wing.

"I used to go over to Geneva and played a lot with guys like Gary Kreilach and Steve McHugh, who became a real good friend, and Larry Cumpston. I'd go to play over at Geneva in the summer and Al Bailey would pick me to play on his teams. He was one of my mentors."

It didn't stop whenever young Wheelock went west. He got some pretty good schooling when his path took him east as well.

"They had a league on Sundays over in Conneaut," he said. "We'd started playing at 3 or 4 and were still playing at 7 or 8. I played against guys like Ron Richards, Scott Humphrey, Jeff Puffer, John Colson and Al Razem and I got to know (Spartan coaches) Harry Fails and Andy Garcia pretty well. I got to know Fails really well. He used to take me to his house, feed me lunch and show me all the books he had on basketball."

Then again, it wasn't like he had to stray from Ashtabula to find good competition.

"I played a lot of ball against (Ashtabula's) Jim Hood, Bill Kaydo and a lot of other guys around town," he said. "I got a lot of encouragement from (Ashtabula coach) Gene Gephart."

That meant a lot to someone who was of the rare breed who concentrated on playing one sport in that era.

"I dedicated my whole life to basketball," Wheelock said. "I gained so much knowledge from other people.

"I wish I could have played in a different era. I would have loved the chance to go to camps and open gyms, but you weren't allowed back then, so whatever you did in basketball you had to pretty much do on your own. I played a lot of pickup ball."

Wheelock's basketball education didn't stop in high school. He had the good fortune to play college ball for two more luminaries at Lakeland Community College and Kent State University-Ashtabula Campus.

"I played for (future Cleveland Cavaliers coach) Don Delaney at Lakeland," he said. "He was very demanding, but I probably learned more basketball from him than anyone else in my life. When I got to play for him it was like, ‘Wow!' I played for him for two years.

"I came back to Ashtabula to finish my education and I got to play for Ed Armstrong at Kent. He was a great guy. I had so much fun playing for him. He was a great coach."

The list of Wheelock's contacts reads like a Who's Who of area basketball. So many of those he mentioned are already members of the Ashtabula County Basketball Foundation Hall of Fame, or figure to be in the coming years.

It is with great excitement and even surprise, then, that he finds himself joining the ranks of so many of his old coaches, teammates and opponents. That will occur March 28 at the eighth annual ACBF banquet.

"It's kind of a shock," Wheelock said from his home in Columbus. "Those are a lot of great players I played with and against.

"It's kind of amazing because so many of them were my role models. I idolized so many of those guys."

Ask any of those Wheelock cited and they agree he is taking his rightful place among them.

"John was one of the best shooters we ever had at St. John, and we had a lot of them," Cannell, who coached Wheelock for all four years of his high school career, said. "He was a very good all-around player. He came to play all the time.

"When he was a senior, we depended on John to be a leader, and he was vocally and by example. He was one of the most coachable kids I ever had."

Billy Johnson and Wheelock teamed up for two years on the St. John varsity and terrorized area teams from the perimeter. Later, they were a sharpshooting duo for Armstrong's KSUAC team that won the Kent State Regional Campus Championships in their senior year.

"John was a very good teammate," Johnson, now the Ashtabula County Sheriff, said. "A lot of people said with the talent we had at St. John, there weren't enough basketballs to go around, but John was a very unselfish player and we all got our share of points. We always believed there was someone we could count on to get us the ball.

"When I played, we saw an awful lot of double teams and box-and-ones. John and I really had to play off each other.

There is no doubt in Johnson's mind of Wheelock's worthiness to join him in the ACBF Hall of Fame.

"John is very deserving," he said emphatically.

The early years

Even though he may not have realized it at the time, Wheelock got a bit of a taste for basketball even when he was in the early years of his schooling. Clyde and Anna Mae Wheelock started raising daughters Carolyne and Barbara and John, their youngest child, on Woodlawn Street in Geneva, where Bailey also happened to live.

"That's when I first got to know Al Bailey," he said.

Wheelock remembers first being intrigued by the game when watching the Geneva teams Bailey coached that included Jim Osborne, who will join him in the Class of 2010 into the ACBF Hall of Fame.

"My sister, Carolyne, was best friends with Jim's sister, Sue, and I used to go to the game with them, so I got to see Jim play a lot," he said. "(Doyle) Doc Osborne (Jim and Sue's father) was my (optometrist) when we lived in Geneva."

But Wheelock's own involvement with the sport really didn't take root until the family moved to Ashtabula when he was in the third grade and settled in a home on Lake Avenue across the street from St. Joseph Church. He attended St. Joseph Elementary School.

At the time, a group was formed to make sure all the elementary school boys in Ashtabula had an opportunity to play against each other. He started playing in the fifth grade.

"It was called the Rodeo Midget Club," Wheelock said. "All the schools — St. Joseph, Mount Carmel, Bunker Hill, State Road, Station and West — had teams in it and would play each other."

It was in that setting that he met the first coaches who would truly form his love of basketball — Lou and Mike Wisnyai.

"They taught us the fundamentals," Wheelock said. "They worked with me on learning to dribble lefthanded and shoot lefthanded layups and how to go up off the correct foot on layups."

He also credits his father, now deceased, with being a huge influence on him throughout his formative years on into high school.

"My dad used to take me over to St. Joseph School and rebound and pass the ball to me while I was shooting," he said. "He always used to drive me anywhere I wanted to go to play basketball, too."

Even more importantly, Clyde Wheelock communicated a very important credo to his son, which proved valuable because the youngster was frequently in situations where he was around older players and coaches.

"My dad always taught me to be respectful of my elders," Wheelock said. "I always made sure I behaved that way."

It was all good preparation for junior high basketball for St. Joseph, where he encountered another coach with impressive athletic credentials — Dennis DeGennaro.

"We had a really good parochial school league in the county then," Wheelock said. "He taught us a lot of defense and playing team ball. I remember playing a lot of games against (Berrier) and (Johnson), who played for Mount Carmel. Those were great games."

Wheelock probably got a little extra coaching from both sources.

"Lou and Dennis lived right near me, so I saw them a lot," he said. "I really appreciated all the time and energy they put in to teach me."

At St. John

So Wheelock felt he was equipped with a solid base of knowledge when he got to St. John. As it turned out, he and Cannell were beginning a four-year connection as the latter was serving as the Heralds' freshman coach under Roland "Smokey" Cinciarelli when Wheelock arrived.

"Freshman ball was different," he said. "I liked playing for Coach Cannell because he always emphasized playing hard and playing well with your teammates.

"I thought I already knew a lot about the game. He was very good at getting you ready for games. I always felt we went into games knowing what to do and were very prepared."

When Wheelock's sophomore season rolled around, Cinciarelli had been called into military service, so Cannell moved up to the varsity job. That was a move Wheelock actually appreciated.

"I think Coach Cannell knew a lot about offense and defense, probably more than Coach Cinciarelli had," he said. "(Cannell) really knew his X's and O's. He was very good at letting you do what you did best."

It just happened that Wheelock's sophomore year coincided with the best team St. John put on the court during the Cannell era, so it was difficult for the youngster to break into the varsity lineup. The Heralds were 12-7 and Cannell was chosen Star Beacon Ashtabula County Coach of the Year in a loaded Northeastern Conference.

"My sophomore year, we started Denny Berrier, (Johnson) and (future Perry coach) Lou DiDonato," he said.

Wheelock spent the early portion of his sophomore year splitting time between the junior-varsity team, coached by E.G. Colin, another Lake Avenue neighbor, and the varsity. He chafed against that a bit.

"I told (Cannell) I'd rather play four quarters of JV than ride the bench for the varsity," he said.

Gradually, Wheelock got more varsity playing time. He had his moments.

"I remember playing against Conneaut when Ron Richards was playing," he said. "We were behind at halftime and I came in for the second half and scored eight points and we came back to beat them."

His impact was really felt in postseason play in the old Class A sectional tournament played at Fairport High School, when teams had to win at least three games to advance to the next level.

"I had worked real hard in practice and they gave me a shot," Wheelock said. "I think I really flourished in the tournament. I had 18 points in one game and 19 points in another. Then we ran into Kirtland that had Jeff Mills and was coached by Don Delaney and that was it."

"John played very well for us in the tournament," Cannell said.

Catching on

By his junior year, Wheelock was set for a much more significant role as the person the Heralds went to for scoring punch when the opposition tried to shut down Johnson. But St. John had no size unlike the previous year with Berrier and had to rely on the outside shooting capabilities, particularly of Johnson and Wheelock, to get the job done. The team, which also included Wheelock's classmate, Joe Petronio and Jim Bodnar, finished 9-10.

"We could score," Wheelock said. "If we'd had the 3-pointer, we would have won a lot more games. I've never seen a better pure shooter than Billy Johnson."

"We would have done a lot better if there had been a 3-point line," Johnson said. "We were so small, we had to do most of our shooting from out in the area where they shoot 3-pointers now."

Johnson also remembers Wheelock as a cool customer, maybe even cooler than he was.

"When I played, I always liked the gyms to be about 97 degrees because it helped me get good and loose to play," he said. "I really liked to sweat. But, you know, I would look over at John and he never even broke a sweat. I'd be soaking wet and he'd be cool as a cucumber."

Wheelock was good enough to earn first-team Coaches' All-Northeastern Conference honors his junior year. All of that happened in a season when Gephart's Ashtabula squad went 20-2, winning the NEC and a sectional title in the process. It was also the first season of ACBF Hall of Famer Bill Koval's run as varsity coach at Geneva, with the Eagles featuring Hall of Famer Kreilach going 16-7 and also winning a sectional title.

There was one huge moment in Wheelock's junior year. This time, the Heralds got the best of Delaney and Mills, who was on his way to earning Ohio's Class A Player of the Year award.

"I hit a shot at the buzzer to beat them up at Kirtland," he said.

Even with Johnson gone after that season, there were high hopes for the Heralds in Wheelock's senior year. Petronio was back with him to go along with classmate Joe Dragon at guard, talented sophomore Mike Mudd making his presence known and fellow senior Tony "Dungy" Presciano providing depth off the bench.

"My senior year, we were picked to win the NEC," Wheelock said.

But, the need at St. John to have so many of its athletes play multiple sports came back to haunt the Heralds even before the 1968-69 season began.

"Joe Petronio played football, too, and he hurt his shoulder in football," Wheelock said. "I think he tore his rotator cuff and missed a lot of time and could barely raise his arm when he did play. We didn't have anybody else who could score.

"The first five or six games, I scored a lot. Then I started to see a lot of box-and-ones and zones. We lost a lot of tough games."

So the Heralds ended up going 9-11 to finish behind Fails' Conneaut team featuring Humphrey, Puffer, Razem and John Colson that went 17-6 to take the NEC title and earn a sectional championship the year before its march to the regional tournament. Ashtabula was 14-7 for Gephart that season.

The Ashtabula and Geneva teams of that era were too much for Wheelock's Heralds to overcome throughout his career in a truly high-water mark for Ashtabula County basketball.

"We beat Harbor and Conneaut twice that year, but we never seemed to be able to beat Ashtabula or Geneva," Wheelock said. "Ashtabula had players like Alvin Benton (older brother of Wheelock's fellow Class of 2010 inductee David Benton) and Bill Kaydo and Geneva had guys like Gary Kreilach."

But there were still highlight moments for Wheelock in his senior year, enough to earn first-team Star Beacon All-Ashtabula County and Coaches' All-NEC honors. One game provided a brush of fame and a moment of tragedy for Wheelock.

"At the time, E.G. Colin had St. John's single-game scoring record with 32 points," he said. "We played Harbor, and I had 22 points at halftime. We went out for the jump ball to start the second half and the ball got tapped out and into a big pileup and I broke my finger in the scramble for the ball and had to sit out the second half."

That incident had much farther-reaching implications for the Heralds, according to Cannell.

"We didn't have John for the tournament," the coach recalled.

There were other memorable moments in Wheelock's senior year, with varying results.

"I remember playing against PV, too," he said. "They had a real good team that year and we were scheduled to play them down there. There were some big writeups in the paper before the game about it. I remember we drove up to their school and there were people standing outside waiting to get in when we got off the bus. PV had Lenny Lattimer (brother of Hall of Famer Larry Lattimer). They blew our doors off and Lattimer ate us alive."

Two other games from his senior year still pain Wheelock.

"We were up by seven points against Ashtabula with only 17 seconds left and we lost the game," he said. "It was real hard to recover from that. Then we played Geneva and lost by one point in overtime."

But there were memorable victories, too.

"One of the highlights of my senior year was beat Conneaut over there when they were 12-0 and had Humphrey, Puffer and Razem," Wheelock said. "We had lost to them at our place and Fails had used a box-and-one against me. For some reason, when we played again, he took it off and I had a real good game. He told me later that was one of the biggest coaching mistakes he ever made.

"We beat Kirtland at our place when they were 15-0. I scored 33 points in that game."

In addition to the honors he received locally, Wheelock earned recognition on a much wider basis.

"I was honorable-mention All-Ohio and honorable-mention All-American," he said proudly.

But the lack of team success in his last year still rankles Wheelock a bit.

"My senior year was a pretty big disappointment," he said.

College basketball

Wheelock must have made quite an impression on Delaney from the encounters with Kirtland, because the coach recruited him to Lakeland when he took over the job with the Lakers.

He still appreciates the time he spent with Delaney, even though those Lakers never reached the heights that might have been anticipated.

"He was a very good coach," Wheelock said. "I learned so much from him. One of the things it taught me was how to read picks. I never knew anything about that until then."

It paid off for at least one big moment with the Lakers.

"We played in a tournament in Indiana and we had a game against Notre Dame's JVs in the days before Digger Phelps was the coach," Wheelock said. "I scored 38 points and their coach talked to me and asked if I wanted to go out there, but I didn't have the grades."

He hadn't finished his degree at Lakeland yet when the move toward starting a family drew him back to Ashtabula. But it didn't pull him away from the court because he saw the team Armstrong was assembling with his old Herald teammate Johnson and former opponents like Ashtabula's Kaydo, Conneaut's Colson and PV's Ned Roach.

"That was a great team with a great group of guys," he said.

Certainly, being a key part of the 1971-72 Viking squad that captured the regional campus championship was a big thing, but Johnson recalls another game that elicits a laugh even now.

"We played down at New Castle (Pa.) and we were up against a team that was real fast and real tall and liked to dunk a lot," he said. "They played a zone that was real strong on one side and kind of weak on the other.

"John was on (the weaker) side and had a lot of open shots, but he was cold. Finally, we called a timeout and I suggested to John that we switch sides, so we did. I was real hot. As the game went on, he kept saying he was all right now, but I wouldn't let him go back over to that side. I ended up scoring 38 points and we won, 74-73."

Life after college

After that season, Wheelock got his associates degree in business. He was married in 1973 and has two children from that marriage who still live in Ashtabula. Son John Joseph, 33, is married to Maria and has presented Wheelock with two grandchildren, 10-year-old Tristan and 5-year-old Madelyn. Daughter Wendy is married to John Hogan and also has given Wheelock two grandchildren, 6-year-old Ashton and 2-year-old Ana. Both children are Harbor High School graduates.

He went to work with Johnson at the Union Dock for several years, then worked at the Rockwell Brake plant for several years.

He didn't retire as a basketball player, though. In fact, he hooked up with several of his old buddies from the playing and coaching community.

"I played with Bob Walters, Steve McHugh and Gary Kreilach for the Jerry Sinkler Ford team," Wheelock said. "We used to travel all over and played against a lot of great teams."

Eventually, he went through a divorce and moved to Columbus in 1983. He and his second wife, Debbie, have been married since 1985. He has worked for 25 years as a horticultural route manager for Tru Green Lawncare.

He and Debbie have two children, Tony, 25, and Megan, 18. Tony graduated from Columbus Westland and manages a Columbus-area Kroger's store. They moved to Grove City so Megan, who had her own fine career, could live out her basketball dreams at Central Crossing High School, a conference rival of the girls basketball machine at Pickerington Central High School. Megan is a freshman at Columbus State University.

Megan's basketball cravings gave Wheelock a chance to explore another side of the sport — coaching.

"I got Megan involved in basketball," he said. "I started coaching her when she was in the fifth grade. We got her into AAU ball until she was in the eighth grade, so I worked with her for about four or five years. I wish there had been AAU ball and basketball camps when I played.

"I love coaching. It's different coaching girls. They don't give you a bunch of lip. I like teaching kids. And Megan got to play against some great players. She played against (Pickerington Central's) Emilee Harmon (a freshman for Ohio State's Big Ten champions). Megan had a real nice high school career."

Wheelock appreciates all that basketball gave him.

"I've met so many great people through basketball who have been an influence on my life in so many facets," he said. "I wouldn't have traded the chance to meet people like Don Cannell, Harry Fails, Al Bailey or any of the guys I played with or against for anything. I had so much fun.

"It taught me how to manage people and to deal with homeowners. It taught me to be disciplined and to control my temper.

"Basketball made me the person I am."