By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Dreams do come true.
Princeton senior Derek Jennelle fulfilled a lifelong dream on Tuesday afternoon, signing a letter of intent to attend school and play basketball at the University of Charleston’s new campus in Beckley.
“I have had this dream ever since I was about 4 years old and now the time has come,” Jennelle said. “I would like to take this chance and see what great opportunities come to me.”
Jennelle, who was one of nine seniors to play for Princeton last season, will play for what will be a developmental team for the Golden Eagles of the Mountain East, with hopes of working his way to the big club at Charleston.
“I have worked out with them a couple of times,” Jennelle said. “Hopefully I can provide some help and give it all I have got this summer and go in there with a great mindset and work hard each and every day I am in the gym.’
Princeton head coach Ernie Gilliard is pleased that Jennelle will get a chance to continue his playing career at the next level.
“Absolutely, it is a great day for the entire Jennelle family and Derek,’ Gilliard said. “It is a great day for Princeton High School basketball because any point in time when you get kids that have generated some interest from the collegiate level to continue playing ball, it says you are doing some things right in your program.
“We are extremely excited for Derek. It presents another opportunity for him to continue to play basketball and to further his education. It is definitely a win-win for Derek.”
Jennelle was part of a lot of winning for the Tigers, collecting 13 points — including a trio of 3s in a win over Bluefield last December — and he also had 12 points, with two 3s, in an upset win at fourth-ranked Greenbrier East.
Unfortunately, a later loss to Greenbrier East in the sectionals stopped Princeton’s hope of a berth in the Class AAA state tournament for the first time since 1981.
“It was rough, but I guess everything happens for a reason,” said Jennelle, who was able to develop his skills at the highest level of play in West Virginia. “I think it will help a lot, (there is) better competition in triple A and it will help me in my college career.”
It was more than just points that Jennelle brought to the Tigers, which finished 17-6 last season, one year after falling one game short of a trio to Charleston. He was one of three seniors in the starting lineup, which also included classmates Hunter Walters and Ryan Meadows, who is a cousin to Jennelle.
“It was great, we have played together since we were in sixth grade and it has been a blessing to be able to play with such great players and it is going to be hard leaving all of them, but I wish them all the best,” Jennelle said. “It was just the bond that we had, we were like a family. If one of us was down there would be another one who would be there to pick him up no matter what.”
Jennelle did more than just put the ball in the basket for the Tigers.
“There were several things he provided for the team,” Gilliard said. “First and foremost one of his strengths was his ability to shoot the ball well and provide some offense for us and take some pressure off of Ryan and Hunter and the rest of the team.
“At the same time being the two-guard he provided some ballhandling for us and helped us get the ball up the floor against pressure defense. I think one of the most important things that he did was he stepped up his game defensively for us and that is one of the things in the offseason we felt like he had to do in order to be a very effective player for us.”
The 6-foot Jennelle will play for first-year head coach Daniel Mitchell in Beckley. Mitchell, who spent last year as an assistant with the University of Charleston, will serve as coach in Beckley, developing players to help the Golden Eagles at the varsity level in the future.
“I really like the coach,” said Jennelle, who will study in pre-med. “It is a great environment and I think it will be a great place for me to fit in and help out the program a little bit, it is a new program starting out.”
Beckley was the home of Mountain State University, which was a national power at the NAIA level. Jennelle will work to help Charleston’s newest hoops program, and work his way up to the varsity Eagles.
“It is a great feeling to be able to play four more years because there is only a small percentage of students that get to go on and play college athletics,” Jennelle said. “It is just a great blessing and I am honored to be able to do this.”
Gilliard expects the 6-foot Jennelle to put in the work to prepare himself for basketball at the college level.
“I think the opportunity that is before him allows where I think he can fare well provided he continues to work and develop his body from the physical standpoint,” Gilliard said. “As he gets physically stronger that will provide some consistency in shooting the long ball and at the same time continue to work on his quickness so he can continue to play solid defense.”
Gilliard expects there to be more Princeton products signing up soon to play on the college level. Meadows did say he will play next school year at Hargrave Military Academy.
“This is the first signing, but we do anticipate additional signings,” Gilliard said. “This is a great group of kids, and so I think their best basketball is just ahead of them.
“I know in Derek’s situation in particular, I think his best basketball is just before him as he continues to develop his body physically and develop his game mentally I think he will play much better basketball.”
Jennelle learn lessons at Princeton that will carry on as he moves to the next stage of his life.
“Just to never give up,” he said. “Keep fighting, do what you want, go for your dreams.”
—Contact Brian Woodson