High School Sports

Coaching led Paso Robles star Watson to Cal State Northridge

Trying to coax Lonnie Watson into playing for his Cal State Northridge men’s basketball team, Matadors head coach Bobby Braswell played some game film not of a win, but a loss.

It was whom the loss came to, however — and the manner in which it almost didn’t — that effectively sold Watson, who just finished his senior season at Paso Robles High.

The screening was of Northridge’s 81-70 loss to national powerhouse Memphis in the opening round of the 2009 NCAA Tournament, where the Matadors almost pulled off a shocker, leading 62-56 midway through the second half before the second-seeded Tigers escaped late.

“That’s when I really knew I wanted to play there,” Watson said Tuesday. “You could see how intense their players were.”

This past weekend, Watson verbally committed to play for the Matadors on scholarship, he said, becoming the first area player of this class to commit to a Division I program. The NCAA’s National Letter of Intent regular signing period starts April 14.

A 6-foot-3 shooting guard who won’t turn 18 until August, Watson possesses a 41-inch running vertical jump (35 inches off one foot). He might redshirt his first year but plans to put on about 20 pounds of muscle to fill out his frame and help his chances of playing early, he said.

On Monday, Watson was named to the all-CIF Southern Section Division 3A second team. He posted 19.1 points (the sixth-best average in Bearcats history), 4.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game this past season, picking up all-PAC 7 and all-San Luis Obispo County first-team honors as Paso Robles went 14-12, making a first-round divisional playoff appearance.

Northridge, which is set to graduate four guards, is coming off an 11-21 year. UC Davis, UC Irvine and UC Riverside were also among Watson’s finalists, he said, although Braswell’s 14 years of head-coaching experience in one place ultimately swayed his decision.

“He’s just a really good people person,” Watson said. “He’s really family-oriented.

“I knew Northridge was perfect for me. There was just something about it that felt like home.”

The Matadors play in the Matadome, a 1,600-seat arena, which only added to the program’s close-knit feel, said Watson’s father, Lonnie Watson Sr.

“(Braswell) said, ‘It’s not about where you play — it’s about what you produce,’” Watson Sr. said.

Late in his freshman season, as a member of Paso Robles’ varsity squad, Watson injured his left knee, requiring surgery that left three screws in place and causing him to miss his sophomore season.

“I was kind of behind everybody because of my injury,” Watson said, “so I had to work 10 times harder (to make up for the lost time).”

He came back strong as a junior, averaging 16.4 points, 5.2 rebounds and 1.1 assists a game on his way to being an all-league first-team choice.

Watson began his Bearcats career in the wake of arguably the greatest team in school history, a group led by current UNLV guard Derrick Jasper that went 24-4, narrowly falling in the CIF-Southern Section Division II-AA semifinals.

“He’s like a big brother,” Watson said of Jasper’s legacy. “He always gives me advice.”

All four other starters from that 2005-06 team went on to play at the junior college level, and center Gerrell Knightshead, who just wrapped up an all-conference sophomore season at Santa Rosa College, is presently being recruited by San Francisco and Sacramento State, among others.

“It’s always been my goal since I was younger,” Watson said of playing collegiately.

“I used to play with the older guys, and they always told me I could do it if I just kept working hard. Now I’m finally seeing that all that hard work is paying off.”