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Healthy, happy Welch returns to old form

With a dynamic crop of new players in Courtney and Ashley Paris, Carolyn Winchester and Chelsi Welch, the Oklahoma women’s basketball team is poised to make another run at an NCAA Tournament berth.

The Sooners begin their...

Wait, hold on. Chelsi Welch isn’t a newcomer. She’s entering her third season at OU.

True, but now that Welch is two seasons removed from surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament, her left knee is as good as new. That will allow the 5-foot-9 guard from Plainview, Texas, to pose the lethal shooting threat the Sooners lacked last season.

Head coach Sherri Coale agreed after watching her guard perform after almost two weeks of official team practice. Coale said Welch is back to “the rookie of the year we signed a couple of years ago, she’s just a little bit more polished version of the way she played as a freshman.”

And what a first year it was. Welch started every game as a true freshman during the 2002-03 season and averaged 12.1 points per game. The shooting guard sank 44 3-pointers and 80 percent of her free throws en route to sharing Big 12 Conference Freshman of the Year honors with Erin Grant of Texas Tech — the hometown school Welch almost picked over OU.

Coale is counting on Welch to duplicate, or even surpass, that kind of production.

“She’s such a tremendous perimeter shooter,” the coach said of Welch. “It’s a great foil for a great post player, which we think Courtney’s presence in the paint is going to take some attention away from our shooters. People are going to have to pick and choose. Are they going to help (in the post) or do they follow the shooters around, and Chelsi is a big part of that plan of attack.”

The coach went on to add, “Chelsi will need to hold her own defensively and she’ll have to take care of the ball on the offensive end and knock down those open shots. That’s the role she’ll have to play for us to be successful.”

Until injuring her knee during the 2003-04 preseason, “Successful” might have been Welch’s middle name. Prior to enrolling at OU, she was a two-time high school state champion, an AAU national champion, and the first McDonald’s All-American to land with the Sooners.

The journey started in Plainview, a West Texas town halfway between Lubbock and Amarillo on Interstate 27. High school sports are a passion in that region; doesn’t matter which sport it is. Welch said the people there are similar to Norman-area residents, and then she let out a chuckle.

“The only difference is you wouldn’t describe Norman as a beautiful place unless you’ve been to West Texas,” she said.

With pitiful lakes barely dotting the region (she considers Lake Thunderbird “awesome” compared to lakes back home), the frustrated boating and water enthusiast instead spent most of her time playing, watching and learning basketball. Welch said she attended many basketball camps and often watched the NBA on television. A huge Michael Jordan fan back in the day, Welch is thrilled the Hornets are in Oklahoma City and she plans to watch them whenever possible.

But her real team growing up was Texas Tech and its Lady Raiders. She attended many a game with friends and family at the old coliseum, before the team move into the Spirit Arena, and she basked in the glory of Tech’s 1993 national title team led by Sheryl Swoopes.

Welch also played quite a bit for her school teams on up to Plainview High School, which had an intensifying girls basketball rivalry with Canyon High.

“We all knew each other and they were always a dominant force,” Welch said of Canyon. “At Plainview, we were kind of coming up, up and rising and getting better.”

During Welch’s freshman year, Canyon blew away Plainview much as it did everyone else. Plainview was competitive the following year, and then turned the tables by beating mighty Canyon in regional play on the way to winning state championships during Welch’s final two years there.

Welch was a high school All-American and the Texas Class 4A Player of the Year following her senior season, and that was after leading her 16-and-under West Texas Star Hawks team to the AAU national title in 2001.

Coale caught her first glimpse of Welch that same year, during an OU summer camp. Coale, like many other coaches, figured Welch was a slam dunk for Texas Tech, and the coach was thrilled to learn she was attending her camp. Thing is, Coale had never met Welch, so she asked an assistant coach to point her out.
Actually, Welch pointed herself out.

“I say, ‘Coach, find out who this kid is; there’s a kid up here who’s a teacher’s dream,’” Coale recalled. “He said, ‘Which one is she?’ and I said, ‘This kid over here with the curly ponytail.’ He turns around and dies laughing.”

Of course, he laughed because that kid was Welch, and Coale let out a jaw-dropping, “You’re kidding.”

“I knew I wanted to sign her because a lot of times you’ll get great, great players who are way too cool to worry about their feet, you know, ‘I’m an All-American; I don’t need you telling me how to shoot the ball,’” Coale said. “She was absorbing all of it like a fifth-grader who never heard anything about how to play — I thought if a kid is that talented and wants to learn and is as hungry as she is, I’ve got to have her on my team.”

The admiration turned out to be mutual. Chelsi Welch, lifelong Texas Tech fan, fell in love with OU and shocked the women’s college basketball recruiting world by signing with the Sooners.

“After I came here, nothing else compared to it,” Welch said. “I can’t say it was an easy decision between here and Tech, because Tech was my home, sort of. And in another sense, I can say it was an easy decision.”

Adjusting to major college competition didn’t overwhelm Welch because she grew up watching it live in Lubbock, so she knew to expect a fast and physical style of basketball.

Welch followed her successful freshman season with an invitation to play in the 2003 World University Games in South Korea. Playing for the Big 12 All-Star team, she averaged 4.4 points in limited play, but made 36.8 percent of her 3-pointers and all of her free throws.

The overall experience, though, was even better than that.

“I still think about that trip a lot,” she said. “The best part was the people. They were the most sincere, loving people I’ve ever been around as far as a culture, a group of people. They would sing songs for us in the locker room before the games, they would massage our shoulders after the game, they were just awesome and so sincere with everything.”

The international tournament capped a long and wonderful basketball wave that crashed Nov. 14, 2003, on the Lloyd Noble Center floor. During OU’s first exhibition game a few days earlier, a player fell on top of Welch and the opponent’s knee hit the back of Welch’s knee and “wedged it into the ground.”

The knee was sore, but Welch continued a limited amount of practice until the knee went out during a jump a few days later.

Surgery ensued, followed by six months of rehabilitation. The physical comeback went well, it was the mental and emotional aspects that proved difficult. Even last season, when Welch returned to the court, the comeback trail was far from over.

“As a team, we were frustrated and from a personal standpoint, I tended to blame myself for a lot of it because I felt if I was playing up to my potential, we wouldn’t be in that struggle,” Welch said. “It was very hard to see my team struggling and I could hardly do anything about it. I would think one thing and then couldn’t do it. My body couldn’t react to it.”

Coale saw and understood Welch’s frustration, but the coach knew from experience that it takes a while to fully return from such a knee injury. She also knew the attitude that impressed her from the start would carry Welch through the adversity.

“She is a very positive person by nature and very much attacked the rehab,” Coale said. “She was meticulous in not only doing the physical things to get her knee to normal, but trying to work on her game at the same time, whether it be ball-handling or passing or making shots or whatever. She was finding a way to keep improving.”

Despite a tough 2004-05 season that slashed her scoring average from 12 to six per game, there were positives. Her 3-point and free-throw shooting percentages went up to 31.8 and 86.8, respectively, and she was named to the Academic All-Big 12 first team.

And now here she is, with more strength and experience than ever. Welch is expecting big things from herself and her team this season, and Coale believes the junior can deliver.

Looking to the future, Welch indeed appears to be a new player for OU.

“I can do so much more now,” she said. “I guess I didn’t realize it, whether it was myself holding back or that I was a little bit nervous, you know, (subconsciously) avoiding doing certain things.
But now it’s really different, and I could say next year my knee is probably going to feel even better than it does right now. It just continues every day to get better and better.”

(Editor's note: This article orginally appeared the 2005-06 basketball preview issue of Sooner Spectator. After a slow start to the season, Welch has emerged as one of the key contributors to the Sooners' fast start and No. 16 ranking.)