COLUMBIA - Word of mouth spread before Aleighsa Welch was old enough for high school. Her reputation grew, extending past the neighborhood basketball courts, where the eighth-grade girl would only compete against boys.
There was a basketball prodigy living in Goose Creek. Tim Baldwin had to see for himself, everyone told him. The Gators girls basketball coach heard Welch's name in the school halls. His players shared her athletic exploits. The school's P.E. teacher confirmed the folklore.
The chatter was too loud to ignore, so Baldwin arranged a meeting with Welch's mother. He asked her to bring Welch by the gym. Baldwin wanted to see if hype met reality.
He didn't even need to see Welch take a shot.
"It probably took me from the baseline to the free-throw line before I figured out she could play," Baldwin said. "She was natural with the basketball."
In Welch, Baldwin saw greatness. She physically imposed players four, five years older. Soon, she would be dominant, the type of player that builds programs. Baldwin invited Welch to play on the varsity. It was a chance to begin her basketball journey a year early, an offer any player would jump at without hesitation. There was only one problem.
When Baldwin posted open tryouts, Welch didn't show. The girl who could beat the boys didn't think she was ready.
"I didn't want to play high school basketball," Welch said. "I knew my size, I knew my skill set, just from playing with my brother or playing in middle school or whatever the case may be. So I kind of knew the type of player I was, but I didn't know if I could maximize my potential just because I was really young."
Baldwin wouldn't take "no" for an answer. He refused to see Welch's talent wasted. The coach sat with Welch in her family's living room, promising basketball could take her a long way. Eventually, she joined the team.
Her launch has been meteoric ever since.
Welch rewarded her coach's persistence, leading Goose Creek to the 2010 state championship. The Post and Courier's three-time All-Lowcountry Player of the Year accepted a scholarship to South Carolina, where she continues to grow her reputation. As a junior this season, Welch is the vocal leader for the greatest women's basketball team in Gamecocks history. As an All-SEC First Team selection, she propelled South Carolina to its first SEC championship and No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.
The Gamecocks open their tournament run with a game against No. 16 seed Cal State Northridge at 5:30 p.m. Sunday in Seattle. Back home, Baldwin will watch his former star from across the country. His amazement wore off long ago. Now, he says Welch showed everyone in Goose Creek what it took to be great. All she needed was a little push.
'She's gonna be great'
The journey didn't start on the courts of Goose Creek. Welch began playing the game a world away, as a 5-year-old on a naval base in Rota, Spain.
Welch's family moved a lot when she was young. Her mother, Sharell, was a Chief Petty Officer, retired after 22 years of service in the United State Navy. Welch tried to fit in with Spanish culture. She began playing soccer, the national sport. When it couldn't keep her interest, Welch picked up a basketball. Instantly, she was in love.
As the family moved throughout Welch's childhood, basketball was one of her few constants.
"For military children, it's hard when you have to uproot after three or four years," her mother said. "They make friends, and then you have to tell these friends goodbye and start all over again. Functionally, they just really don't transition that well moving from a familiar place to an unfamiliar place. But the fact that she had basketball, she knew that wherever we went, she was going to play.
"I think just having that comfort knowing wherever we went basketball was going to be an option for her, she transitioned just fine. I think if she did not have that, she probably wouldn't have been able to adapt so easily to the transition."
Welch had a natural gift. Her mother says it was divine. There were no basketball players in the Welch family. The game didn't exactly flow through her bloodlines.
Welch was different. Her development came naturally, blossoming at an early age. Any reservations about joining the Goose Creek varsity - Welch, a left-hander, thought she needed to develop her right hand more - were quickly eased. By the end of her eighth-grade year, Welch was one of the best players on a team with Division I prospects.
She led Goose Creek in scoring during a playoff loss at Orangeburg-Wilkinson that year. There was disappointment after the game, but Baldwin kept thinking about what the future could hold with his young star. The school bus pulled up to a Wendy's after the game. As they waited in line to order, Baldwin told Welch her potential was endless.
"I told her, 'You know you were our leading scorer tonight,' " Baldwin said. "She was like, 'Yeah, I knew it was a big game, and I had to step up.' And that's from a girl who was in eighth grade. That's when I was like, 'Wow. She's gonna be great.' "
Led with conviction
Nobody gave her daughter a chance. The odds were too great. Goose Creek was an overwhelming underdog entering the 2010 state championship game against Spring Valley. As her daughter packed her gym bag, Sharell Welch knew there were no guarantees.
Sharell Welch grabbed her daughter's hand before leaving the house.
"I looked at her eyeball to eyeball, and I said, 'Whatever God's will is for this game tonight, you have to accept it - good, bad or ugly. You understand?' " she said. "I was holding her hand, and she looked at me with conviction, with determination, and she said, 'Mommy, we are gonna win the state championship.' I remember it just like it was yesterday."
Welch is known for coming up big in clutch moments. There is no greater example than Goose Creek's state title. Welch scored 36 points and 15 rebounds, leading her team to an upset inside Colonial Life Arena. At the time, she couldn't envision how familiar that arena would become.
South Carolina coach Dawn Staley shared Baldwin's initial impression of Welch the first time she saw the 6-foot forward play. It was the way Welch moved on the court - her raw athleticism, her incredible rebounding ability - that attracted her on the recruiting trail.
Ultimately, Welch's basketball smarts won Staley over. Welch has played every position on at least one end of the court this season. She starts South Carolina's press, and distributes on offense. Of course, she also rebounds. Her 7.5 boards per game rank second on the team this season. They go with 13.7 points per game.
Sophomore guard Tiffany Mitchell received the postseason accolades this spring. She was the SEC Player of the Year after leading the Gamecocks in scoring. Staley appreciates Mitchell, but she said no player is more important to her team's success than Welch.
"She has an incredible combination of smarts and athleticism, and she's just really a workaholic," Staley said. "She works. She's a workhorse. If you look at our successes and our failures, it probably starts and finishes with her. I know Tiffany Mitchell's had a tremendous year, but when Aleighsa has played well or hasn't played well, it usually reflects a win or loss.
"She's that important to our basketball team. Hopefully she can lead us or will us to have a long stay in the NCAA tournament."
There will be basketball after South Carolina. Staley, a hall of fame player, called Welch "a pro" who can thrive on the next level. Right now, a deep run in the NCAA tournament is the only thing on her mind. She thinks back to her journey, and she knows everything led to this opportunity.
She isn't worried about the future right now. Welch knows she's ready.