Daily Independent (Ashland, KY)

Local Sports

July 6, 2014

Sportsman of the Year: Doing it Tay's way

Stuck in overdrive, Wheeler knows only one gear

CANNONSBURG — -The Independent’s 14th annual honor is named in memory of Tony Curnutte, a former sports writer with the newspaper who died in January 2002 at the age of 39.

Award winners:

2013-14: Taylor Wheeler

2012-13: Logan Salow

2011-12: J.J. Jude

2010-11: Chandler Shepherd

2009-10: Stephen Metcalf

2008-09: Tyler Boyles

2007-08: Randy Keeton

2006-07: Jeremy Sheffey

2005-06: Julie Ditty

2004-05: Ivan McGlone

2003-04: Brandon Webb

2002-03: Megen Gearhart

2001-02: Arliss Beach

2000-01: John "Hop" Brown

Taylor Wheeler will readily admit that she had no delusions of grandeur upon first picking up a basketball or a softball. Little did she know she’d become the definition of grandeur by graduation time at Boyd County High School.

“I had no intentions of doing anything spectacular,” Wheeler said.

Apparently, intentions, like records, are bound to be broken.

How’s this for spectacular?

In basketball, she collected a 16th Region Tournament Most Valuable Player award (as a freshman), was honorable mention All-State three times,was selected to participate in five esteemed All-Star games, was the KABC 16th Region Player of the Year in 2014 and was a three-time selection to The Independent’s All-Area Team.

In softball: first team All-State as a senior; All-Area Player of the Year in 2014; All-Area Co-Player of the Year in 2012; four-time All-Area honoree; and KSCA Player of the Year as a senior.

All because she “did my job,” as she likes to put it.

But wait, there’s more. Much, much more for the 2013-14 Tony Curnutte Sportsman of the Year who possesses exceptional character, displays ceaseless sportsmanship and produces rarely rivaled athletic accomplishments.

Wheeler earned the Lady Lions’ all-time scoring title on Feb. 21 against Rowan County. The previous record stood for 38 years. She finished with 1,795 points and 810 rebounds in an illustrious career that began inauspiciously, if you ask her.

“People probably thought I didn’t have an athletic bone in my body,” Wheeler said. “It was that bad.”

She said “it’s kind of strange thinking about it now” how cheerleading and tumbling morphed into basketball and softball.

Former Lady Lions teammate Bri Crooks’s father, Wheeler said, “basically forced me to play” softball at the Boyd County Optimist Fields in the mid-2000s.

Just about two years later, the then fifth-grader suited up for Ponderosa Elementary basketball coach C.L. Thompson.

Savannah, Taylor’s talented kid sister, is entering her eighth-grade year. She played alongside Taylor on the varsity squad last season.

“Savannah would’ve eaten me for lunch if we were the same age,” Taylor thought back to her early playing days. “I wasn’t good at all in sixth grade, in either sport.”

As a freshman, Wheeler played a pivotal role in helping lead the 2010-11 basketball Lady Lions to the Sweet Sixteen.

Listed at 5-foot-8 as a senior, she played and guarded every position at various points throughout her career. She bulldozed her way to the basket on offense and poured passion on top of physical play on defense.

“She’s never going to be the finesse kid on the floor, but if you need something done, she gets the job done,” said Boyd County varsity basketball coach Pete Fraley. “She may — and she’ll tell you this — dribble off every body part she’s got but she’ll get there.

“She just went out and did her job, first and foremost,” he added.

Wheeler views softball as more of a job, partly because it actually was an occupation for her father, Dave, for a short time. The Lawrence County High School product played for a Cincinnati Reds-affiliated Pioneer League team in Billings, Mont., in 1990. Dave is an assistant coach for both the Lady Lions and the West Virginia Dusters, Taylor’s summer travel team.

“We’re all the time practicing and he’s telling me what I need to do better,” Wheeler said of her father. “I’m used to hard criticism ... and I kind of treat (Savannah) how my dad treats me.

“Mom’s (Tracy’s) always the one trying to keep peace at home,” Wheeler cracked a smile.

Wheeler has dedicated more practice time to softball because basketball came more naturally to her, she said. Softball, though, is her future in sports.

The slick-fielding shortstop touts quick, dependable hands and a whip of an arm.

The right-handed hitter had a .467 batting average, 198 runs, 173 RBIs and 133 steals at Boyd County. As a senior, she drilled eight long balls and pilfered a state-best 52 bases.

“I’ve never seen myself as a power hitter,” Wheeler said. “That’s not something I was used to. I was more of a get-in-the-gaps, run-around-the-bases kind of player.”

Wheeler signed to play softball at Walters State Community College (Morristown, Tenn.) in March. She’ll start school on Aug. 25, with plans to primarily study education. She hopes to eventually play Division I softball, a realistic possibility according to Boyd County coach Geoff Stewart.

“As I go back and look at all the athletes who I’ve had the privilege to coach, and all the athletes I’ve seen in the 16th Region, she ranks with those at the top of the list,” Stewart said. “I can’t think of any flaws she has (in softball). Her understanding of the game and her great will to win stand out the most.”

Wheeler missed virtually her entire freshman season on the diamond due to the first of three separate bouts with mononucleosis. She played through the other two, each of which occurred during basketball seasons.

“When she was diagnosed with mono (as a sophomore), we thought she was going to be out for several weeks,” Fraley said. “But that wasn’t an option to her. A lot of people didn’t realize she even had it.”

Wheeler also sustained six concussions, she said, with all of them coming on the hardwood.

“If she’s sick, she’ll play through it as much as she can,” Stewart said. “She’ll play and play and play.”

Whether under the weather or perfectly healthy, Wheeler refused to make excuses any time she experienced a subpar performance.

Front and center in bringing her through those inevitable rough nights were grandfathers Jimmy Taylor and Mont Wheeler, she said.

“My papaw Jimmy, I don’t think he’s ever missed a ball tournament,” Taylor Wheeler said. “If anything is ever upsetting me, he’s always the one picking me up. He’s just so sweet.”

By all accounts, Wheeler has a sweet side herself.

“She’s an outstanding, very caring individual,” Stewart said. “She has a lot of friends and a lot of girls follow the lead of what she does.”

Wheeler penned a personal note around the edges of a picture of Fraley hugging her on Senior Night. It hangs in Fraley’s office.

The message reads, “‘In my seven years of playing high school sports, you have influenced me the most. Not only have you encouraged me to excel in my education but in everything I do. Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.’ -Your second daughter, Tay.”

Wheeler is well aware that Pete Fraley’s daughter, Logan, will soon surpass her as the program’s top scorer. The senior to-be, who happens to be one of Wheeler’s best friends, is only about 100 points away. Savannah might have a chance, too.

“It won’t last too long, but I’d rather have them break it because I’m close to them,” Wheeler said.

Wheeler will be missed, even though Savannah and other former teammates like to joke that they won’t skip a beat without her.

Her contributions didn’t just consist of fantastic numbers.

Stewart said Wheeler is both funny and serious, and she can flip the switch at any moment she sees fit.

“Some of the one-liners in the dugout, oh my,” Stewart said with a laugh. “We could be in the middle of a ball game, and she could be out at shortstop and say something totally off the wall to loosen up the team.”

Her seriousness shined through — most of the time, she acknowledged — in her studies.

“I wasn’t allowed to get bad grades,” said Wheeler, a 3.5-GPA student who graduated with honors. “I think I had one C, and that was in chemistry.”

A different kind of chemistry, though, remained intact for teams that involved Wheeler.

“She’s a leader,” Stewart said. “To get such an esteemed award as this does not shock or surprise me one bit.”

Wheeler joins Megen Gearhart and Julie Ditty as the only females on the list of Sportsman selections.

Wheeler didn’t plan on achieving greatness, but sometimes greatness finds those who don’t search for it.

AARON SNYDER can be reached at asnyder@dailyindependent.com or (606) 326-2664. Follow

@DindependentQB on Twitter.

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