Neal Cobleigh

Neal Cobleigh, Wheeler's former head basketball coach, is the associate head coach at East Lyme. | Sun file photo

WESTERLY — Former longtime Wheeler High boys basketball coach Neal Cobleigh is returning to his roots this season as an associate head coach at East Lyme.

Cobleigh was an assistant coach for 12 years in Westerly and was Wheeler's head coach for 14 years starting in the 2008-09 season.

"I will be the lead varsity assistant and do whatever [head coach] Tim [Strong] needs me to do," the 64-year-old Cobleigh said. "I'm going to be giving suggestions instead of making that last decision. Tim is a good friend of mine. It's going to be different, but a challenge. Tim had been talking with me for a long time and wanted me to join his staff."

Cobleigh said he met with North Stonington school officials in April and was told he wasn't going to be "renewed" as coach.

"I started looking for a new thing. I passed up a few other assistant jobs and was runner-up for a head coaching job," Cobleigh said.

Cobleigh, who lives in Westerly, left his job as a paraprofessional at Wheeler in the special education department. He said he's semiretired, but did not rule out returning to the classroom.

"I have a lot of friends over there, kids and people I respect. I'm going to miss that. I enjoyed my time [at Wheeler]," Cobleigh said.

The Lions qualified for the Class S state tournament three times during Cobleigh's tenure. The 2019-20 team won a first-round game in the state tournament before the season was ended by the coronavirus pandemic.

Wheeler has the smallest male enrollment in the ECC and one of the smallest in the the state with 107 boys, according to data use by the league for its most recent realignment.

"Being small has its advantages. Team chemistry is usually really, really good. The kids have been friends since kindergarten," Cobleigh said. "At Wheeler, the kids want to be taught. If your strength as a coach is teaching the game, it's an asset to be at a place like Wheeler."

But Cobleigh said having such a small enrollment can also present challenges.

"You have to really, really adjust your practice so kids are getting to play together, but also playing against someone that will challenge them in practice," Cobleigh said. "The depth is just not there."

And the small numbers sometimes can be reflected in wins and losses.

"Your effort is your success. It sets them up pretty good for life lessons. They learn that things are not going to be handed to you," Cobleigh said. "We have certain goals within games. We try to help the kids realize how important it is just being able to compete. I think kids learned a lot about effort and determination."

Cobleigh said he has heard from a "pile of kids" when it was learned he would not be coaching next season.

"It's so rewarding there. I am thankful for time I had there. It makes you realize what high school athletics is all about. I'm as competitive as they come, but I realize what is important," Cobleigh said.

What advice would Cobleigh give to his successor?

"Embrace the culture of the school, understand what is important with the kids and their lives, and you will be fine," Cobleigh said.

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