The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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November 13, 2013

Watson, Romeo sign to play D-I basketball

Greenbrier East stars reach rare heights in Spartan hoops history

FAIRLEA — In its first 44 years, Greenbrier East High School had four players sign NCAA Division I men’s basketball scholarships — Warren Baker (WVU), Bimbo Coles (Virginia Tech), Sidney Coles (Memphis State) and Matt Estep (Wofford).

It’s now added three to that list this year.

A little more than three months after Bryce Woodliff became No. 5, signing with Georgia Southern in July, Obi Romeo and Rondale Watson became Nos. 6 and 7 Wednesday, signing with Saint Joseph’s and Wake Forest, respectively.

“It’s really special,” said Greenbrier East head coach Jim Justice. “They’re two great kids, and they’re going to two great schools. Now we have the recruiting process out of the way, and that takes a lot of the recruiting pressure off of them. They can stay focused on their season and getting better.”

Romeo, a 6-foot-10 center with a 94-inch wingspan, chose the Hawks out of the Atlantic 10 over Florida Gulf Coast, Georgia Southern and others.

The Spartans’ big man, who came to the United States from Nigeria and was adopted by Rick and Suzzane Romeo of White Sulphur Springs, had never played basketball when he first went out for the team. He’s developed into a shot-blocking machine and will get a college education thanks to a game he’s played for only three years.

“He’s worked really hard and improved dramatically,” said Justice. “His story is unbelievable. It’s remarkable that he’s here, and I salute the Romeo family for an act of kindness that will be remembered for a long time. He wants to be a civil engineer and go back to his country and help them with water projects. How can it get any better than that?”

Romeo averaged 10 points and 13 rebounds per game last year, helping lead the Spartans to a 20-5 season that ended with a loss to South Charleston in the Class AAA Region 3 co-final. He said he chose Saint Joseph’s — a school that has had 29 players drafted by the NBA and played in seven Sweet 16s — because it felt like home.

“It’s quite an exciting day to me,” said Romeo. “I can’t put it into words. I thank God for everything he’s been doing in my life from the first day I set foot in America. I have come a long way, and hard work pays off in the end.

“I love the coaching staff (at St. Joseph’s), and I feel settled there. Basketball might end one day, and St. Joseph’s is a good academic school in a basketball city. So it’s 50-50.”

The Hawks are coached by Phil Martelli, who’s in his 19th season.

Watson, who began his high school career at Oak Hill High School, averaged 21.6 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals last year for the Spartans. The 6-foot-3 guard thrives on getting to the rim and creating offense off of his defense.

He had interest from Marshall, West Virginia, Cincinnati and Georgia Southern, among others, but fell in love with Wake Forest on his visit in September.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Watson. “A lot of people don’t get the opportunity to play basketball at the college level, and I thank God for giving me this opportunity. I wish I could have this feeling forever.”

It also doesn’t hurt that the Demon Deacons play in what is widely considered the best basketball conference in the land, the Atlantic Coast Conference.

“It’s an amazing feeling to watch people on TV and know you’re going to be right there soon,” said Watson of matching up with teams like Duke, North Carolina and Syracuse in the future. “I’m just going to work my tail off to succeed at that level.”

With two Division I signees on the roster, the goals are understandably lofty for  this year’s team at Greenbrier East.

“I want to enjoy my senior year and do what every other kid wants to do and win a championship,” said Watson. “I think we can be way better than last year. We’ve all put in the work, and I think we can make some noise.”

“The goal is a championship,” agreed Romeo, who’s part of a basketball family with his adopted brother, Richard, a sophomore walk-on at WVU and his adopted sister, Liz, a standout for the Spartan girls the last two years. “This is my last year of high school, and my goal is to leave something before I’m gone.”

That puts some serious pressure on the broad shoulders of Justice, now entering his third season coaching the East boys, while still leading the ultra-successful girls’ team.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Justice said with a laugh. “We’ll have a lot of fun. There will be some great teams out there. I know Woodrow will be great again and Martinsburg and South Charleston. It’s going to be a challenge.”

— E-mail: chuffman@register-herald.com and follow on Twitter @CamHuffmanRH.

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