WBB: How Ashley Wheeler’s time with Guelph is helping the Mustangs to an undefeated start

LONDON, ON – Ashley Wheeler brings a unique skill set to the Western Mustangs, and her experience in every stage is incredibly valuable for a young team. As a leader for a large group of younger players, Ashley is at the forefront of the Mustangs play, and her development over the years can be put on the main stage for everyone to see.

            It started in Grade 9 at Stratford Central Secondary School. Ashley played two years of WOSSAA at Stratford before playing JUEL in grade 12 with London Ramblers. “JUEL was my main experience. In grades 9 and 10, we were only AA, but we won WOSSA, we never made it to OFSAA, but I would say JUEL was the main reason for exposure,” Wheeler said. At London, Ashley got the opportunity to compete against some of Canada’s best high school players.

            Her exposure gave her an opportunity at the University of Guelph, where she joined the team for the 2015-2016 season. In her rookie year, the Gryphons went 11-8, improving the previous year’s 8-11 record. That record was bolstered by a rookie class of five, including Ashley, and a core of veterans that helped ease the young rookies into the life of the OUA. “Going into first year is always a big adjustment and a jump because you’re on your own for the first time,” Wheeler said. “The workload was a big adjustment with the two-hour practices, classes and individual workouts. It’s a lot more than you’ve ever done before. It can take a toll on your body as you get used to it”.

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            Two veterans, in particular, helped Ashley grow and adjust to the OUA, Bridget Atkinson and Dana Van Balkom, the two leading guards for the Gryphons, Bridget in her 2nd year and Dana in her fifth. “The veterans had a huge impact (in my transition). Bridget and Dana had a huge role in that; Dana came back to coach in my last couple years,” Wheeler said.

Ashley came in as a post player and a stretch four and having guards with the experience and talent of Bridget and Dana helping you adjust and showing you the culture and expectations can be huge for a young rookie. “The expectations were there, and those vets were the ones who had to set the expectations going in,” Wheeler said. “Getting to play with them and see that helped shape the rest of my career and my views on how things should’ve been done.”

           The Guelph Gryphons underwent a coaching change before the 2016 season, and Mark Walton came in for Christin Dickenson. With a new coach and a new style of play, the team’s culture shifted again, and players took on new roles, “it was a very abrupt situation. We didn’t get a lot of time with our coach before pre-season was starting. We lost five veterans, and a couple started. Suddenly there were people who hadn’t played much before, and they were now the team.  

“It was a big adjustment for us figuring out the new roles on the team and trying to learn Mark’s new system and culture that he wanted.”

            As the roles shifted and young players became the leaders and veterans on the team, Ashley’s play shifted along with what the team expected out of her. Their star point guard Bridget Atkinson and Dana Van Bolkom were no longer on the team, veteran forward Katherine Mactavish finished her time with the Gryphons, and there were holes in the roster, specifically at the three/four position. Ashley came in as a stretch four, playing alongside Katherine, Katelyn Yallin, Vanessa Rampado and fellow rookie Julia Kokonis. As the team evolved, she transitioned to more of an inside-out player.

Over her next three seasons, Ashley found herself playing more and more inside the paint as a stretch four, rather than a perimeter forward who had the height to take the ball inside. The first season under the new head coach impacted the teams’ performance. With everyone trying to learn the new system, the Gryphons went 5-14 in conference play and didn’t qualify for the OUA Playoffs. During that season, Ashley averaged 10.4 points per game with 6.3 rebounds, her highest scoring game coming on the road at Ottawa on Jan. 21, 2017, where she scored 18 points to go with her two assists and three steals.

The 2017-18 season was Ashley’s third as a Gryphon and 2nd in the new system, and as the depth grew around Ashley, the team saw more success. The inclusion of rookies like Skyla Minaker, Burke Bechard, Ashley White added depth to the Gryphons scoring. Ashley became even more of a facilitator and traditional post player, giving the Gryphons a paint touch and the ability to play out of the post for their guards around the perimeter. Ashley’s perimeter shooting decreased, but her blocks and rebounds persisted. Ashley recorded a season-high six blocks against the Gee-Gees that year, setting her 13 rebounds in the same game. That Nov. 4 80-66 win saw 4 Gryphons finish in double digits in scoring, and Ashley Wheeler was one of three players for either team finishing with a double-double.

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It was clear the Gryphons were gaining momentum, and they had found their new identity and culture, but Ashley would have to wait an extended period to capitalize on that new energy. In the first game of the 2018-19 regular season against the Western Mustangs, Ashley tore her ACL after just playing nine minutes, and that sidelined her for the season, one in which the Gryphons went 9-15 and lost in the semi-finals of the OUA Playoffs to the Lakehead Thunderwolves.

Ashley got cleared during the following offseason to return for the 2019 season. Still, with some good news, she received her eligibility back for the 2018 season, which meant her plan of playing all five seasons could remain. Now with her year back, she had the opportunity to lace them up for two more seasons, and her play on the court didn’t falter at all.

Ashley’s 2019 season was the best for the Gryphons in her career. They finished with a 14-8 record, and though they were eliminated in the playoffs, their first-round match against the McMaster Marauders was probably the best you’ll see in a while. After winning 5 of the last six games, the Gryphons went to battle with Christina Buttenham, Sarah Gates and the McMaster Marauders and eventually lost 93-88 in overtime. The Gryphons season may have been cut short, but Ashley showed that season that she was back and ready to continue to do what she had done from 2015-2018, and she had one more year to do it. With her degree over at Guelph, Ashley wanted to move on to teachers college, and she had one place she wanted to go, the University of Western Ontario.

Gar Fiztgerald

Ashley enrolled in teachers college for the 2020 school year. With the madness that began with COVID-19 and the world coming to a halt, her transition was bumpy, but she still knew, from the playoff game against McMaster, that she wanted to play her fifth year, whenever that would be. “The transition was weird. It was easier to manage being a student because everything was out of your house; I didn’t have to go anywhere or be on campus”, Ashley said of starting teachers college during a pandemic at a new school. On the basketball side of things, Ashley found that the Strength and Conditioning Coaches made her life easier maintaining the fitness level and dedication to basketball that she had throughout her career, “We weren’t able to do a lot of practicing but the S&C coaches had great home workouts for us every day,” Wheeler said.

“Nate was super welcoming and awesome about welcoming me into the program and introducing me to the girls right from the beginning. “

Now Ashley is on a Western Mustangs program that sits at 6-0, 2nd in the division behind 7-0 Brock, and she is doing exactly what she had done in her first four years. As more of a perimeter player with Sarah Harvey taking care of responsibilities in the paint, Ashley’s perimeter shooting is showing more and more this season, and she’s grown into her leadership role as a veteran on a young team.

The Mustangs are rolling and have set themselves up for a good run going into the second half of the season, and 6’0″ Ashley Wheeler from Stratford, Ontario, is playing a big part in that during her final season in the OUA. “The transition was weird, investing so much of your time into one program and suddenly switching to playing for a team you’ve competed against for five years,” Wheeler said.

Gryphons fans know her contributions, and Mustangs fans have a lot to cheer for as Ashley takes the court in January for the final stretch going into the OUA playoffs.

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