COLUMBIA — It was at a Wendy’s in Orangeburg, of all places, where Tim Baldwin first realized that this was no ordinary player. The Goose Creek High School girls’ basketball team was returning from a loss in the Lower State final, and during a stop for dinner the Gators’ head coach informed a certain eighth-grader that she had been the team’s leading scorer.
Even then, Aleighsa Welch was all focus. “I knew it was a big game,” she replied. “I knew I had to step it up.”
Nine years later, Baldwin still sounds amazed. “That kind of caught me off guard,” he said. “This girl’s in eighth grade, and to think that way? Kids today in eighth grade, you tell them, ‘Hey, you’re the leading scorer,’ and they’re like, ‘OK, can I get some chicken nuggets?’ But that’s how she responded to me.”
She’s still responding. Welch stepped it up in another big game Tuesday, scoring 19 points to power No. 2 South Carolina by No. 6 Tennessee. Now she prepares for a night that looms large in more ways than one — the former Goose Creek star will be honored Thursday as one of three seniors playing their final regular-season home game, and then try to clinch at least a share of the SEC title against No. 11 Mississippi State.
While it won’t be Welch’s final appearance at Colonial Life Arena — the Gamecocks (26-1, 14-0 SEC) are poised to host the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament — it will begin the process of saying goodbye to a player who’s been critical to the rise of the USC program. Although Welch is shooting .565 from the field and averaging 10.3 rebounds over her past six games, the steadying presence of the three-year captain can’t be defined by any statistic.
“I’ve had nightmares about her not suiting up for us next year,” said USC coach Dawn Staley. “But we’re going to savor her each moment that we have her. She’s been incredible for our program, just her development, her ability, her ability to be a coach on the floor, a coach in the dorms, and all those things. When you lose someone as big as what she means to our program, it’s a pretty big void.”
Hard to believe, then, she was hesitant about the prospect of playing at the high school level when Baldwin heard there was an eighth-grader at Marrington Middle School who might be a fit for his program. Baldwin went to Welch’s house, visited with her mother Sharell, and lobbied through her older brother Ernesto, who played football and basketball for Goose Creek at the time.
“I didn’t think I was good enough,” Welch said. “He was very persistent. That’s what finally got me to come out. He came and talked to me and my mom, he stayed on me. My brother was in high school at the time, so he kept talking to my brother, and they finally convinced me. It just kind of fell into place from there.”
When Welch’s mother brought her to the gym, Baldwin thought he’d need 10 or 15 minutes to determine whether Aleighsa was truly ready for high school ball. He needed less than that. “Three or four dribbles,” he remembered. “You could just tell by the way she carried herself that she was a pretty special person, and also she had natural athletic ability.”
And with it, a degree of composure evident even early on. Welch grew up in a military family, moving to Goose Creek from Pensacola, Fla., when she was 10. Her mother served 22 years in the Navy, and today works at the Navy brig. “Let’s put it this way — when mama Welch speaks, people listen,” Baldwin said.
At USC, the same could be said of her daughter. “That’s where it all came from,” said Aleighsa, who’s missed just one start the past three seasons. “My mom, she’s big on discipline and structure and leadership. Every quality I have came from that and being part of a military household.”
Thursday against the Bulldogs (25-4, 10-4), when Welch will be recognized along with center Elem Ibiam and guard Olivia Gaines, brings it full circle. Her mother, brother and father Ernesto Sr. will be on hand for Senior Night, when the tears may be hard to hold back. But leave it to the three-year captain to maintain that focus, and not let the emotion get in the way of the goal.
“This is a big game for our season, so you just have to find a way to put that on the back burner for a while,” Welch said. “It’s going to be special, but at the end of the day it’s not just about Senior Night. We have a game to play, and a really important game to play.”