TURLOCK - The first few times the ball swings to Dominic Romeo's side of the court, there's no opportunity for Pitman High point guard Chase Torba to get the ball inside to his 6-foot-6 center. Torba keeps trying, though, and eventually he threads a pass to Romeo in the low post.
Romeo's job is only half done: Now, the chiseled, 245-pound senior has to convert that pass into points. Before the defense can double-team Romeo, he feigns a move to the key and instead pivots left, muscling past his defender and banking in a 4-footer.
Just as quickly, he turns and runs downcourt. No finger waving, no slow glide as the crowd cheers, no standing around admiring his shot. Romeo has proven himself to be a blue-collar player this season, displaying a workman's attitude while putting up 21.7 points and 10.7 rebounds a game.
"We have an opportunity to witness a senior deciding to get the most out of his talents and provide a strong example to underclassmen," said Pitman coach Harvey Marable, noting Romeo was a reserve last season. "His weight training has increased his leverage, which allows him to maintain a post position for a longer period. Dom is a throwback to the 80's with his hard work and unmatched willingness to compete."
After battling a defender underneath for a bucket, Romeo often seeks the teammate who got him the ball and delivers a quick high-five as they race downcourt.
"I can position myself on the block, but that doesn't do any good if the ball doesn't come in," said Romeo, who has scored more than 30 points three times this season. "When I get down low, the guards do a great job of getting the ball inside. I think their job is more difficult, because they've got to worry about handling the ball, making the pass, getting back on defense ..."
The Pride's ability to strike from behind the 3-point line also keeps defenses from overplaying Romeo.
Merced tried to focus too much attention on Romeo in their first Central California Conference meeting, and Pitman guard Derek Nidey scored 24 points on eight 3-pointers in a Pride upset. In the rematch, the Bears were forced to spread their defense beyond the perimeter and Romeo had 29 points on 13-of-17 shooting - though Merced won the game.
"A good inside game can only be accomplished with the help of outside shooters," said Marable, noting Nidey and 6-6 swingman Amarpeet Randhawa are hitting 43 percent of their treys. Romeo plays a role there, too, as the Pride can shift him to the high post and use him as the hub of the passing offense.
The combination has kept Pitman (15-8, 6-2) in the conference race, behind Merced (20-4, 8-1) and Turlock (19-5, 7-2), and the Pride visits its crosstown rival Friday night. The game will determine which of the two will continue nipping at Merced's heels the final week of the season.
Though Romeo was the Pride's sixth man a year ago, his play demanded enough attention that CCC coaches named him to the second-team all-conference team. This year, he rarely leaves the court and teams still are trying to find the gimmick defense that will shut him down.
If anything, Romeo seems to be improving as different defensive looks are thrown at him.
He's averaging 27 points in his last four games, including 34 in last week's 53-42 win over Buhach Colony, and is shooting 75 percent (42 of 56) from the floor. He's also pulling down 13 rebounds a game over that span, four a night on the offensive end.
His most impressive numbers, however, don't show up in the scorebook.
The kid's taken nearly a dozen college-level Advance Placement courses and has a 5.0 grade-point average, Marable noted, and scored 2080 out of a maximum 2400 on his SAT. Unlike many ballplayers who are good enough to have an impact at smaller colleges, Romeo's priority is performing in class and he just might attend an Ivy League school or a West Coast university that focuses more on books and less on basketball.
"If he doesn't receive a scholarship, it would not surprise me if he walked on at a university of his choosing," Marable said.