By Cam Huffman
More than 150 professional golfers will be invading The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs beginning Monday for the biggest sporting event in the state of West Virginia — The Greenbrier Classic.
Greenbrier owner and CEO Jim Justice is charged with heading up both the PGA TOUR FedEx Cup golf tournament and the historic resort, so reporting that Justice has been a busy man over the past week would be a little like breaking the news that it can get a little chilly in Alaska during the winter.
But Justice’s attention wasn’t all focused where one would think over the last week. While final preparations were being made on the Old White TPC Course and tournament director Monte Ortel was scrambling to put together a complete list of players for the event, Justice was in the last place one would expect to find him — Myrtle Beach.
No, he wasn’t catching rays and building sandcastles. Justice was focused on his first love, basketball, and coaching the Greenbrier East High School teams to success in summer league basketball tournaments.
“I pretty much went back and forth each day,” said Justice, who explained there was just too much going on to stay with his team the entire time. “I would have loved to stay with them the whole time, but I coached 22 games in three weeks, so that was pretty good.
“People don’t understand this, but my foremost obligation and passion is to those kids. I’m going to do that right and then worry about everything else. Everything else will just have to wait.”
Taking advantage of the three-week period that coaches have to work with their teams over the summer, Justice, who coaches both the boys and the girls during the regular season, took both teams to the sunny shores of South Carolina to get in some work. He nearly left with an undefeated record.
The Lady Spartans, who won the 2012 Class AAA state championship and went 24-1 in 2013 — a shocking loss to Capital in the regional finals ended the season prematurely for the state’s top-ranked team — nearly won the United States Basketball Association national championship for a third straight season.
Playing without starting point guard Chloe Honaker, who has been sick, and Lexi Tincher, who was unable to make the trip, GEHS lost its opening game to the Pennsylvania Running Rebels, 51-40, but responded with four straight wins to set up a rematch.
This time, Greenbrier East got the job done against the talented squad from the Philadelphia area, winning 54-43 to advance to the championship game against the Virginia Warriors.
With starter Chaunté McDowell — who averaged 17 points per game throughout the week — in foul trouble for most of the game, and with a short bench as a result of the players who didn’t make the trip, GEHS fell short in the title game, losing 65-54.
Elizabeth Romeo and sophomore-to-be Kat Walton averaged 11 points each throughout the tournament, helping guide the Spartans to the runner-up finish. Justice also credited Sydney Nunley, who has stepped in to give East a more traditional post presence, and another sophomore-to-be, Taylor Hill.
“We had a bunch of kids that had to step up, and they really surprised us all,” said Justice. “They beat a really good team from Philadelphia, and they deserve a lot of credit. It was a great trip.”
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As if that run of success wasn’t enough, the Spartans boys, who finished 20-5 last season, also made an impressive run at the beach.
Greenbrier East went 6-0 on its trip, defeating five Palmetto State schools — Aynor High School (64-41), Waccamaw High School (52-30), Carver’s Bay High School (51-39), Socastee High School (60-38) and North Myrtle Beach Christian (83-36).
Winning by an average of 22 points per game, the closest contest came against a school from the Ashville, N.C., area, a game the Spartans won 49-43.
Second-team all-state selection Rondale Watson, who has moved to point guard, led the Greenbrier East efforts with 21 points per game.
“He has really come into his own,” said Justice, who was wearing yet another hat, working in a cornfield on Saturday. “One thing he lacked last year was a really strong outside shot. He’s done a lot of work on that and ball handling, and he had games where he scored 40 points.”
The move to point guard was somewhat of a necessity after East lost Bryce Woodliff to graduation, but Justice also believes it’s a move that will benefit Watson’s future plans.
“He’s doing a great job back there,” Justice explained. “That’s a great position for him to play in college, so I think we’re doing him a service by moving him there.”
Obi Romeo and Tyler Canterbury averaged 10 points each, while Romeo led the team in rebounding and blocked shots.
“He’s really hitting his stride,” said Justice of his man in the middle. “It takes some extra time with a big guy, but he’s figuring it out. He had multiple dunks and all kinds of rebounds.”
— E-mail: chuffman
@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.