There is virtually nothing about Manhattan that resembles life in the Canary Islands. Whether it’s the differences in culture, climate, language or geography, it’s everything Leti Romero has had to adjust to since moving here in August.
But one thing that hasn’t been lost in translation is basketball.
Kansas State’s Spanish import has been nothing but spectacular in her first two weeks as a Wildcat — averaging a team-best 14.3 points, six rebounds and five assists through the first three games this season.
Though Romero is just a freshman, the 5-foot-8 point guard has looked more like an upperclassman. She’s led the Wildcats in scoring twice already — including a team-high 16 points in her regular-season debut against Tennessee State and a 25-point, eight-rebound performance against Charlotte when she was 7 for 7 from the field.
Romero had a double-double with 25 points and 12 rebounds to go along with four assists and four steals in the Wildcats’ first exhibition game against Washburn. But one sequence in the first half showed just how advanced Romero really is for a first-year player. With the shot clock winding down and nobody wanting to take the shot, it was Romero who called for the ball at the top of the key and then drove past a pair of defenders for a layup with 2 seconds to spare.
“Every player wants to score, pass, rebound, everything,” Romero said. “I enjoy scoring and I enjoy passing, but I really enjoy trying to make my teammates better. When we’re in a game where everyone is scoring, passing, assisting, getting rebounds and we are all playing as a team, that’s what I enjoy the most. When I think I need to score, I will go score.”
That assertiveness is something K-State coach Deb Patterson hasn’t seen from a young player in her program since the days of Kendra Wecker and Nicole Ohlde.
“This has been one of the best freshman performances that I’ve seen in many years, going back to those days when we were coaching Kendra and Nicole,” Patterson said. “They’re different positions, but I remember taking Nicole Ohlde at the beginning of the year to Wyoming and she popped for 29 points or something. It was amazing.
“I think with Leti, we’re seeing versatility in her scoring, which is amazing me right now. It’s also the quality at the line, the quality assist-to-turnover ratio and the rebounding. She’s bringing that total game and that’s really rare for a young player.”
But Romero is young in age only. Last Monday’s Big 12 Freshman Player of the Week, actually spent the past three years playing as an unpaid professional for Gran Canaria of the Spanish Liga Femenina — a league that features many current WNBA players and former college standouts, including Maya Moore, Danielle Adams and Courtney Paris. Former Wildcat Brittany Chambers plays for the same team Romero joined at age 15.
“She’s very good — and I say that with a smile on my face,” said K-State assistant coach Shalee Lehning, who handled the majority of Romero’s recruitment. “She’s unbelievably talented, her natural skills, has a knack for the game, makes the right decisions at the right times. She has a great skill set — the European players are very fundamental. That’s what they do. Leti can score in every way, can shoot the 3, has the vision and makes everyone around her better.
“She’s the real deal.”
That made it even more difficult for K-State to land such a prized a recruit. Everyone wanted the 18-year-old star from Las Palmas, who was fourth in the Spanish league in scoring at 15.3 points per game last season.
It all started when a family friend sent an email to dozens of schools — including K-State — using a highlight video to showcase Romero.
“We get e-mails all the time, from players, recruits — it’s not uncommon actually,” Lehning said. “I remember sitting at the desk that day. I watched it and was like, ‘wow, this kid’s really good.’ I showed Coach Patterson and she told me to follow up on it.
“I responded quickly.”
The budding relationship was just in its infancy stages and Lehning remembers thinking with more than 60 Division-I offers, how was K-State going to get one of Romero’s three visits.
“I built a relationship with her through social media,” Lehning said. “We could video chat and email. We were fighting to get a visit.”
“That was the hardest thing because I didn’t know anything about any of them,” said Romero, who received offers from every Big 12 program. “I decided on my visits based on the relationship I had with the coaches.
“I was talking to Shalee — we had a really great relationship before my visit. I enjoyed talking to her. She was honest with me and explained everything to me and I really believed in her and what the program was about.”
Romero had never been to the United States before, but was set to visit three schools on one trip — Florida State, K-State and Virginia Tech — in that order.
The only problem is that Romero’s visit at K-State was scheduled for the same day the Wildcats were playing at Oklahoma last season. That wasn’t the only hurdle, however, as the team wound up stuck in the Sooner State after a big snowstorm grounded the flight home.
“I went to Coach Patterson and asked if she could leave me behind,” said Lehning, who stayed back with former director of operations Danielle Zanotti. “We did the entire visit, we met people on campus, just the normal stuff, but (Romero) didn’t get to meet the team or Coach Patterson.”
None of that mattered. Romero was sold on K-State, which hosts Wichita State on Wednesday night at 7.
“I really liked the visit here, and the other two were great, but coming from so far, I was really looking for a place where I felt at home and that was Manhattan,” said Romero, who played on the Spanish 19-and-under national team in the FIBA World Championships this past summer. “People were so nice to me, coaches, everyone. And I liked how they play here. I liked that the coaches (Kami Ethridge and Lehning) were point guards. They really know everything about point guards and felt like I could improve my game here.”
Romero’s final decision came down to Florida State and K-State.
“It was hard because after going to Florida State, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I really want to come here — it’s great,’” she said. “And then I came here, and it was like, ‘Oh, my gosh, I love it here.’ In the end, something inside me told me Kansas State is where I wanted to be.”
Romero’s only meeting with Patterson, in fact, was via Skype, until she showed up ready for class three months ago. By then, the K-State staff had finally realized the significance of securing a recruit like Romero.
“We didn’t understand at the time,” Lehning said. “The more we recruited her, we understood how well respected she is in all of Europe. She’s been an MVP of all different championships, so every country knows her. I’ve talked to several athletes in other countries and they know Leti or know of her and want to play with Leti, so it’s a really unique element and exciting for our program.”
And as good as Romero has been early for K-State, she’s still going to have freshman moments as she adjusts to the American game — like this past Saturday when UTEP held Romero to just two free throws after going 0 for 7 from the field.
“It’s much more physical here than Europe,” Romero said. “You can play in Europe if you’re talented — even if you’re not physical, you will be good. You have be strong to play here and that’s something I need to work on.”
It’s all part of the ongoing adjustment process to life in soon-to-be-cold Manhattan, college and Big 12 basketball.
“My first couple weeks were hard because I had to adjust to so many things, the weather, the food, the language, the style of play,” Romero said. “But my teammates, the coaches, the staff, all help me. My teammates always care and want to make sure I understand something -— I appreciate that.”
And some are trying to learn Spanish as well. The coaching staff even purchased Rosetta Stone to help learn Romero’s language.
“I’m trying to teach them, but it’s not that easy,” Romero said as she laughed.
“I told Leti I would have paid way more attention if I knew down the road that I was going to need it,” said Lehning, who took two years of Spanish in high school.
Until then, the language of choice will just have to be basketball.
WICHITA STATE (1-2, 0-0 Missouri Valley)
Yr. Ht. Ppg. Rpg.
G — Jamillah Bonner Jr. 5-8 10.7 5.7
G — Alex Harden Jr. 5-11 18.0 5.3
G — Michaela Dapprich So. 5-10 8.3 3.0
F — Kelsey Jacobs Jr. 6-2 7.7 3.7
F — Michelle Price Sr. 6-1 12.0 4.7
KANSAS STATE (2-1, 0-0 Big 12)
Yr. Ht. Ppg. Rpg.
G — Haley Texada Jr. 5-7 8.0 5.0
G — Leti Romero Fr. 5-8 14.3 6.0
G — Kindred Wesemann Fr. 5-8 9.0 4.0
F — Erica Young Fr. 6-3 4.3 3.3
C — Breanna Lewis Fr. 6-5 6.3 6.3