Archdeacon: All eyes on Chelsea Welch, Wright State sensation

Wright State guard Chelsea Welch brings the ball up the floor during Thursday’s rout of Cincinnati Christian at the Nutter Center. ALLISON RODRIGUEZ / CONTRIBUTED
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Wright State guard Chelsea Welch brings the ball up the floor during Thursday’s rout of Cincinnati Christian at the Nutter Center. ALLISON RODRIGUEZ / CONTRIBUTED

It was a case of one star gushing about another:

“We got to see her up close! She came right up to the glass in front of us and I feel like she has almost human instincts. She sees a camera and she smiles and she’ll twirl. She’s just so cute. I love her.”

Just after Chelsea Welch and her Wright State teammates had dismantled Cincinnati Christian, 99-36, at the Nutter Center on Thursday afternoon, the Raiders’ standout point guard talked about another team from Cincinnati.

“I’ve got a hat that says Team Fiona on it,” she beamed. “I got it when I went down to the (Cincinnati) zoo with a couple of my teammates. It was great.”

Fionamania has hit the Wright State women’s basketball team or, at least, it has engulfed Welch.

“Some of my other teammates might not see the adorableness that I see,” she shrugged. “But how couldn’t you?”

She was talking about Fiona, the nearly 11-month-old baby hippo that’s become an international sensation at the Cincinnati Zoo.

Born premature, weighing 29 pounds instead of the normal 55 to 120, Fiona’s initial struggles just to survive were captured in daily reports, photos and clips filed by zoo personnel on social media. Soon she had millions of followers worldwide, and as she got healthier her popularity only grew.

A video of her appeared on The Tonight Show. Graeters made an ice cream, Chunky, Chunky Hippo, that instantly sold out. It was the same for a local brewery that made Team Fiona Beer.

Facebook ran a seven-episode realty show on her. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt bought a children’s book on her penned by the zoo director. The Cincinnati Reds are planning a Fiona bobblehead day next season.

There are “Feeling Hip” t-shirts, mugs, magnets and a Christmas sweater featuring Fiona in a Santa hat.

“I saw Fiona on Facebook when she was first born,” Welch said. “I read up on her then and began to follow her all the time on social media.”

All the time?

“She weighs 610 pounds now,” Welch said of the most-recent weight posting.

For the Raiders senior point guard it must be a treat to be on the other end of the looking glass.

She’s also become everyone’s focus these days.

Welch came into Thursday’s game — which was infused with some high-decibel delirium from the 1,300-plus cheering schoolkids who filled the lower seats of the arena for the annual kids’ day promotion — as the Horizon League’s preseason player of the year.

And since being saddled with that scrutiny-drawing accolade, she’s lived up to the task.

She scored 36 points in a last-second, 82-80 loss at No. 23 Missouri. She had 26 against Kent State last Thursday and 24 against Providence in the Savannah Invitational, where she was named to the all-tournament team.

Against the Friars she also reached 1,000 career points, a total that spans her first two seasons at the University of Pittsburgh and then last season and this at WSU.

Before Thursday’s game, Welch was tied for 21st among NCAA Division I scorers this season with a 20.9-point average.

The 8-2 Raiders have blown out two of their last three opponents — Chicago State, 84-39, and then Cincinnati Christian, an NAIA school with a 1-10 record — and that’s meant WSU coach Trina Merriweather has kept her starters on the bench for much of those games.,

Welch played 18 minutes Thursday and 23 against Chicago State. Each game she scored 13 points.

“If she’d been out there the entire game today she could easily have scored 40 points, I believe,” Merriweather said.

Although playing an NAIA team is debatable, it wasn’t about padding stats for a Raiders team that is quite formidable. It was about working on things to get ready for three good opponents coming up — Belmont and Georgia on the road and Horizon League nemesis Green Bay at home — all before the end of December .

In each game Welch will be targeted, not just because of the preseason praise, but because of what she can do on the court.

“She does everything for us,” Merriweather said. “I can literally play her at four positions on the floor. She defends. She rebounds. She’s our go-to person on offense.

“And she attracts so much attention that even when she’s not shooting amazingly, you still have to pay attention to her because she gets her teammates involved.

“Because she scores so much people don’t know what a good passer she is. She’s had games where her assist-to-turnover ratio is 3 to 1 and 4 to 1.”

Merriweather has been the recipient of this good fortune thanks to the hustle of former Raiders coach Mike Bradbury, who has since moved on to New Mexico.

When the 5-foot-9 Welch decided to transfer out of Pitt, several schools showed interest, but he offered her a scholarship immediately. For her it was a chance to be the focal part of a team, but also to come home.

She had helped lead Fairmont High School to the state tournament four years in a row and a state crown as a senior.

“It’s been great being back here,” she said.

She’s playing in front of family and friends and she’s getting to showcase her talents.

She said she knew nothing about being 21st in the nation in scoring coming to Thursday’s game and said she didn’t care that her 13-point effort might drop her down the list a bit:

“I don’t really pay attention to that. I think when you focus on that it seems selfish. And if you did focus on it you’d drive yourself crazy if you played bad. So I just don’t try to feed into it. I just try to go out there and be myself … and people can see what I do.”

After all, that’s worked for Fiona.

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