The Wright State women played Northern Kentucky on Saturday afternoon at the Nutter Center and Chelsea Welch cried.
It wasn’t because of something NKU did.
The Raiders’ 5-foot-9 senior guard scored 21 points — a half-point below the average that has her tied for No. 11 in all of NCAA Division I scoring this season – and she added eight assists and three steals to lead WSU to a 73-60 victory.
Her meltdown came after the game and the Senior Day ceremonies that honored her and fellow senior Lexi Smith at center court with their families.
Later, in a private moment with just the two of them, Welch was asked to talk about what made Smith special.
“You’re going to make me cry,” Welch said as she looked at Smith and started to crumble.
Her eyes glistened, her voice began to waver and soon after she began sharing her thoughts, the tears began to spill onto her cheeks.
“You are the hardest worker I’ve ever played with,” Welch said. “You’re always someone we can count on, You never complain. Even though you’re undersized a lot, you don’t see it as a disadvantage. I’m really going to miss you. I just…I….”
The rest of it was lost in a choke of emotion and by then Smith’s eyes were brimming, too.
“I’m not gonna lie. You have your days when I think you are mean,” Smith said in answer to the same question about Welch.
“But you’re just tough. That’s one of your greatest qualities. You’re tough and confident and days when I’m down on myself, you’re the one who pushes me and is honest. You’re not afraid to say what everybody else won’t.”
The two lone seniors on the the pillars of Wright State’s 19-8 team.
Welch has scored 1,213 points in her two seasons at Wright State and 1,472 when you count her first two seasons coming off the bench at Pitt. She’s scored in double figures in all 61 games she’s played at Wright State, was an All-Horizon League first team pick last year and this season is a prime candidate for the league’s player of the year.
The 5-foot-10 Smith — who had battled injuries this season and averaged 8.9 points and 6.7 rebounds — is 11 points shy of 1,000 in her career at Wright State. Her 803 rebounds are fourth all-time at the school.
Interestingly, WSU got both players when other schools decided they didn’t want them.
Smith played for the storied Homewood-Flossmoor program in Illinois but was overshadowed by flashier D-I prospects on the roster and was considered undersized to play the post in D-I.
She only had a couple of offers from nearby Chicago schools until WSU coach Katrina Merriweather, then an assistant to Mike Bradbury, liked what she saw when she watched her at a high school practice.
Merriweather mentioned her body, her strength, that she was the first in line for every drill and how she was a tireless worker.
Although Smith had never heard of WSU — “I Googled it to see where I was,” she said — she came for a visit and said she was struck by the family atmosphere off the court and the intensity on it at practice sessions.
For two years, though, she bided her time behind 6-foot-5 Richelle van der Keijl, who eventually followed Bradbury to New Mexico last season.
“She was the picture of patience,” Merriweather said. “She worked hard every day and when there was finally a vacancy, she stepped right in.”
Welch came out of Fairmont High School — which she had helped lead to four straight trips to the state tournament and one Ohio title — with a lot more fanfare. Rated the No. 4 prep player in the state, she said she chose Pitt for “the name” and to get away from home.
After playing in 60 games for the Panthers her first two seasons – almost all as an off-the-bench role player – she felt she didn’t quite fit. The parting was mutual and Bradbury outhustled everyone to get her.
“Everybody counted us out after we graduated Kim Demmings, but we knew we had someone sitting out (per NCAA transfer rules) who had a whole lot of potential,” Merriweather said.
“Once she could play, she was just fearless. She was competitive and tough and that is reflected in everything she does on the floor.”
As for Smith, Merriweather said: “Whether her stats say so or not, she demands attention on the court. Trust me, the other teams are constantly worried where she is and how they can keep her off the offensive boards.
“She’s definitely undersized, but her heart is as big, if not bigger, than anybody’s.
“I’ve said it the last two years. There is no 5-foot-10 post player, pound for pound, inch for inch, in the country who is better than Lexi Smith.
“She is really special.”
That’s what Chelsea Welch was trying to say through the tears.