Welp encountered defeats before championship

Photo by Jimmy Lafakis/The Herald
Forest Park junior Ali Welp (11) takes her turn at snipping down the net Feb. 6 after the Rangers bested Evansville Mater Dei, 35-26, for their first girls sectional championship since 2017.

By COREY STOLZENBACH
sports@dcherald.com

FERDINAND — Some champions know the feeling of heartbreak before they know the feeling of joy — case in point Ali Welp.

The Forest Park junior has been starting for the Rangers since her first game of high school her freshman year, and she was there when they went 11-13 her freshman year before a drastic improvement came her sophomore year when the team won 18 games through the sectional semifinal. One more win on Feb. 8, 2020, would've meant they were sectional champions.

Instead, they fell just shy, 56-52, against Evansville Mater Dei, and Welp was denied of achieving what so many Indiana high school basketball players dream of.

"It was just heartbreaking knowing that we should've beat them," Welp said.

"I think everybody kind of went into that game not by any means thinking it was a given, but knowing we had a good chance to win," Rangers coach Tony Hasenour said. "And when you come up short like that, it was heartbreaking. I remember being in the locker room after the game last year, and there were a lot of tears being shed."

For five Ranger seniors, that was the end of the line for their high school basketball careers, but Welp dedicated a lot of time to the game after that sectional championship loss, as she was going to be an experienced player for a Forest Park team that graduated a talented batch of seniors.

"I put a lot of work in over the summer — putting in a lot of shots, and I know as a team, we had this Google form, and we put in how many shots we up over the summer," she said. "And I think that that helped us tremendously."

The Rangers graduated the likes of Macie Zink, Faith Zazzetti, Kenlee Gehlhausen, Kennedy Sermersheim and Amber Theising — with that senior group leading the way in many statistical categories for last year's team. Welp had to deal with some young underclassmen seeing some expanded roles, such as Amber Tretter, Lydia Betz and Gabey Gray — all sophomores.

Welp tried to push her teammates to their hardest, showing her teammates on how practices go and the way the varsity game is played.

"She kind of knows when it's time to lead with words and when it's time to lead by example," Hasenour said. "There are so many times in practice where she's just doing everything that the coaching staff asks of her. If it's a new drill, she picks up on it right away. If it's a new concept that we're trying to get across, she picks up on it right away.

"She sees her teammates that may be struggling with it — she'll go over there and help them," he continued. "Or like I said, lead by example. Sometimes, she'll just do it right, and everybody will see what she's doing or see the effort she's given, and that picks up everybody on the team."

Yet, Welp dealt with more than personnel changes that saw expanded roles for some of her teammates. She underwent a role change herself after being the team's starting point guard her first two years in high school. The Forest Park coaching staff asked her to do less ball handling and distributing and do more scoring.

She spent her team's opening games in quarantine, and despite Forest Park starting the season 7-0, Hasenour said Welp's new role was an adjustment for her. The fifth-year coach noted that she made many outside shots in her team's 36-26 win Dec. 1 at Southridge to improve to 6-0 at the time, and Welp had a game-high 19 points.

Yet, the Rangers underwent their struggles, too, though. Forest Park went on a stretch of losing three out of four games in December, all on the road, at Tecumseh, Heritage Hills and Washington.

"We learned that we needed to take care of the ball better," Welp said. "I know when (Tecumseh) pressed us, we definitely needed to improve on that, and our defense really lacked those games that we lost."

Yet, that stretch of games proved to be more of a hiccup than of a downward spiral. Forest Park allowed a minimum of 57 points in those three losses. The Rangers haven't allowed 50 points in any game since, and have only played two games where they allowed 40 or more points.

They ran the table after their 62-37 loss Dec. 17 Washington, winning their last six games of the regular season and their first two sectional games by double figures. The run that they went on set them up with a Feb. 6 rematch against Mater Dei in the Sectional 48 championship.

"I wanted to beat them so bad since I lost to them in volleyball and basketball both in sectional," Welp said.

The game was low-scoring compared to the 2020 championship, but Forest Park came away with a 35-26 win, behind Welp's game-high 12 points, and she’s currently averaging 8.3 points, 3.1 rebounds and 1.5 assists per game. Welp felt stayed she calmer and took the ball to the bucket more compared to last year when she stood on the 3-point line. The Rangers were sectional champions for the first time since 2017, and every player on the team was a sectional champion for the first time in their high school careers.

"It was definitely one of the greatest moments ever," she said. "I think I smiled the most. It was a dream come true, that's for sure."

It gave Hasenour chills to see Welp help snip down the net after the victory after he described her being thrown to the wolves as a freshman. He hailed her for her bulldog mentality, which she had as a freshman, but noted that every freshman has a learning curve.

Hasenour also knew some talented players were coming back this year, but nobody knows what to expect after losing a big senior class.

"For those girls to come back after the heartache from last year — to come back and win it; and see Ali going up that ladder and knowing where she started at as a freshman and where she was at now, I was so thrilled for her and all the girls on the team," he said.

Welp and her Ranger teammates aren't done yet, since they'll be competing Saturday at the Crawford County regional against Linton-Stockton, the defending Class 2A state champions. The winner will meet either South Ripley or Eastern (Pekin) in the championship game. Forest Park's girls have won only two regional championships, with their last one coming in 2000 when they finished as the Class 2A state runners-up.

Hasenour told the Herald on Wednesday that Forest Park knows it's the underdog against Linton-Stockton, but he believes his players are embracing that.

"This is a great opportunity for us," he said. "Nobody in the state expects us to give them any kind of fight. So, if we can come out and play our game, and maybe come away with an upset, we know that that's going to turn heads all across the state of Indiana."




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