Dec. 13, 2013
By JACK BOGACZYK
HUNTINGTON, W.Va. – On coach Matt Daniel’s second Marshall women’s basketball team, precociousness is precious.
And as Chelsey Romero has shown early this season, it doesn’t hurt to stand 6 feet 1, either.
Romero will take those traits and more onto the Charleston Civic Center floor on Saturday afternoon, as the Thundering Herd (3-4) has a tough 1 p.m. tipoff against West Virginia (7-1) in the annual Chesapeake Energy Capital Classic.
As Daniel rebuilds the Herd, he is relying on plenty of new faces. One of those is Romero, whose early play has been solid. And now, Marshall is going to be depending on even more from the youngest player on the roster – Romero was 18 on Oct. 9 – due to the absence of junior post player Chukwuka Ezeigbo.
Romero, of Hampton, Va., got her first college start Monday in the Herd’s 86-42 romp past WVU Tech, and she produced a double-double of 14 points and 14 rebounds to go with three blocks in 30 minutes. She’s averaging 5.0 points and 5.0 rebounds and 15.6 minutes per game.
Ezeigbo started in the post for the Herd’s first six games, but now she will be lost to Daniel’s team for perhaps as long as a month. Ezeigbo’s father, Ambrose, 56, died last month of cancer. After a funeral in New Jersey, where the family lives, he will be buried in Nigeria. Chukwuka – nicknamed “Cheeka” and one of his five children – has left the team to make the long, sad trip.
“We’re going to really miss Cheeka,” Romero said of the starter who is averaging a team-high 7.4 rebounds.
How much she’s missed, Daniel said, depends on Romero, who is precisely the kind of player the Herd coach wants as he recruits to greatly improve Marshall women’s hoops fortunes.
“She fits that to a T,” Daniel said of Romero. “She’s a difference-maker. She’s not just a Band-Aid. With Cheeka gone about a month, and we’re going to rely on Chelsey a lot. She’s been productive, but she needs to be a little more consistent.
“But that comes with experience. That’s what experience is. Chelsey is a prime example of what we want. She had offers from ACC schools and she didn’t even take those visits. I’m really glad she chose to be here.”
Romero starred in the prominent Nike Boo Williams AAU program in Virginia and at Kecoughtan High School, where she averaged 14.8 points and 10 rebounds as a senior and was named All-Peninsula District. Her scoring average increased each year – 5.5 as a freshman, then 8.1, then 11.7 as a junior.
When she signed with the Herd in November 2012, she became the first Kecoughtan girls’ basketball player to get a scholarship in 20 years. The last was Tajama Abraham, who went to George Washington, where she scored 2,134 points and now is an assistant coach at George Mason.
Romero understands past is past.
“It’s been really different from high school, a complete 180 degrees,” Romero said. “You have to work 10 times harder, it’s more physical, and there’s a lot more adversity. I’m not a star player like I was in high school. Everybody’s good here. You just have to work hard to earn your spot. It’s way different.
“I’ve learned a ton of things since I’ve been here and I haven’t even been here that long. I learned how to take adversity and that things aren’t always going to go your way, and you have to work through it.
“I haven’t just learned so much about basketball, but I’ve learned about life, too, things that people wouldn’t think you learn from being on a basketball team. Another thing I’ve learned about basketball is to be good, you have to keep working hard, keep growing, and play every day like it’s your last.”
Romero said she considered Temple, Delaware and Marshall, making her final choice between the Blue Hens and Herd. She was sold on Daniel’s pitch to build a program, an effort that began with a large degree of difficulty with a 9-21 finish last season.
“I just felt like Marshall was coming from the bottom from previous teams, and Coach was bringing in a whole new team of girls, and it was an opportunity to turn the program around,” Romero said. “I just felt like I wanted to be a part of that.
“I just like change, and I like being a part of it, especially in a positive way. So that was one of the main things. People back at home don’t know so much about Marshall, and I’m trying to recruit them to what we’re doing here. For me, I just saw a good opportunity.”
Romero has played at least 10 minutes in every game for the Herd, and the early returns have included her post-play skill to get position and score in the post.
“Chelsey’s got a natural feel; she’s got a natural knack, and she will admittedly tell you that she’s got a lot to learn, but she’s just got a feel,” Daniel said. “A feel, you can’t teach. It’s a gift. It’s natural, and she’s got that gift. Her basketball IQ is so high, she can make adjustments in-game, and a lot of freshmen can’t do that.
“It was a hard recruiting process because she wanted to make sure she made the right choice. If I asked her a question right now, she wouldn’t give me a quick answer, because she wants to make sure she’s giving you the answer that she really means. So, she’s very deliberate in her thought process, and very mature in her thought process, especially for a kid that just turned 18.”
Romero has an older brother, Daquan Romero, who was the starting weakside linebacker for Virginia as a junior this season. He won two Virginia state titles as a defensive end at Phoebus High. So, his sister’s athletic emergence at Marshall should be no surprise.
She just didn’t expect to be on the floor so much, so soon.
“I knew I was going to have to earn time and playing right away wasn’t my main focus,” Romero said. “I wanted to learn before I actually went out there and played.
“I didn’t think I was going to get as many minutes as I do. I felt like I was going to get a few minutes, but I’m shocked at how many minutes I’ve gotten.”
Daniel gave Romero the start against WVU Tech primarily because he was disciplining several players who had to sit out the first half for what he called a violation of program rules. The Herd coach said the freshman post player may have even surprised herself not so much with her statistics, but with her stamina.
“I don’t know if it would have happened yet but it was going to happen at some point,” Daniel said when asked if he started Romero because he knew Ezeigbo was going to be unavailable for so long. “It’s funny how things work out sometimes.
“You get into games and you have a chance to show things. I’m really pleased with Chelsey. She’s produced. She has asthma, and after the game (and her 30 minutes), she told me, ‘I wasn’t nearly as tired as I thought I’d be.’
“We put her in a position to do that, but I’m really pleased it turned out like it did.”
Now, Romero faces her biggest challenge to date, as WVU – with seven straight wins this season and eight in a row over the Herd – plays a front line that starts 6-4, 6-1, 6-1, and can bring players 6-5, 6-2, 6-1 off the bench.
“All I can do is keep telling myself is to play hard,” Romero said. “Playing that (WVU) team is going to be some of that adversity I was talking about. I go against Cheeka in practice and she works pretty hard and that should prepare me for all of the games.
“I know I’ve still got a lot to learn. I’m just going to get ready and play hard like I’ve tried to do all of the games. We’re just getting started on what we want to do here.”