(Photo: Harry Scull/Buffalo News)
When he was just a seventh grader, Cheektowaga coach Pat Cullinan could see something special in Dom Welch, so he played him at the varsity level during his eighth grade year. By the time he was a freshman, a star had emerged at Central. Not just a kid who starts as a freshman, but a record-breaking double-double machine who averaged over 13 rebounds per game and scored nearly 20 an outing, all while setting a new standard for the Warriors with a school record 80 blocks. He went on to lead the team to it's first and only Section VI title in Class A2 that season. Remember, we're talking about freshman Dom Welch.
As a sophomore, everyone in WNY knew about Welch. The fresh-faced freshman had gone from the kid who grabbed everyone's attention, to the dominant force that demanded game plans be designed around him. Before the end of that season, he had already eclipsed the 1,000-point mark. After his team was hit hard by graduation, Welch came into his junior season with a new cast around him in the starting lineup and took his game to the next level. His scoring soared to new heights and soon it became obvious that he might be in contention to do something very special before his playing days were over.
His senior year became a captivating pursuit of history against some of the stiffest competition around. After what had already been a brilliant four-year varsity career, Welch saved his best for last. He cemented his legacy as the greatest to play at Cheektowaga and put his name at the top of a long list of legends that came before him. Dom Welch is the 2017 CC MVP.
Coming into this season, he was just 648 points away from breaking the all-time scoring record in WNY, held by Ritchie Campbell since 1990 from his days at Burgard. In order to accomplish that, Welch would need to again increase his production and do it against a who's who of team's scheduled by Cullinan.
"He was ready for a challenge and when we put the schedule together, we didn't shy away from playing anyone."
Cheektowaga opened its season against Bishop Kearney, a loaded Class AA power out of Rochester. Welch began his final campaign with 29 points, nine rebounds, and a Game MVP award at the Cataract City Classic. His next outing was a memorable 40-point eruption against the banner program in the area known for its defense - Canisius. After a quiet first half, Welch went off over the final 16 minutes and nearly brought his team back from a 23-point deficit in a six-point loss at the home of the two-time CHSAA Class A state champions. He added 10 rebounds in that game.
The following day, the Warriors faced Nazareth out of NYC, who came in determined to stop Welch. While they managed to hold his point production in check (17 points), the Warriors took advantage as a team to earn the victory. Welch didn't force shots or pout, he took what the defense was giving - open looks to his teammates. Shadowed the entire game, he placed his focus on defending, rebounding, and distributing.
"This year more than ever you really saw his versatility come to the forefront and you saw his ability to play any position," Cullinan said.
After four consecutive double-doubles that included 39 & 14 against Starpoint and 21 & 13 against Park, Cheektowaga arrived at the Depew Holiday Tournament. They reached the championship game against St. Mary's after handling the hosts in the first round. Against the Lancers, Welch scored 22 points, pulled down 13 boards, and dished 10 assists, to earn Tournament MVP after leading the Warriors to another win.
"He led by example and by his ability," Cullinan said. "Guys respected him for his understanding of the game."
That knowledge of the game included where the open man would be and when to zip a pass his way. For such a dominant scorer, his passing ability may be far and away the most underrated aspect of his game. In his career, Welch finished with 242 assists, with 82 of those coming during his senior year - good for an average of nearly four per contest.
"When he was double and triple teamed, he never panicked...he found the open guy. There were times when he would make the pass and guys weren't hitting the shot or not catching the pass, but he'd never stop doing it. He was the most unselfish superstar that you're going to see. He could have easily taken 10 plus more shots a game, but he was never that type of guy."
"There wasn't any time where he just put his head down and said I'm going for mine - that's not how he is and he's never been that way. That, combined with who he's played over his career and how consistent he's been really speaks volumes about how special he really is," Cullinan said.
After winning the Depew Tournament, the Warriors came back from break and began the heart of the season with a nonleague game against Williamsville South, where Welch finished with 25 points and 13 boards. In two games against Pioneer, he dropped 41 and 35 points, hauling in a season-high 20 rebounds in one of the two victories. Against Lake Shore, he chased 29 points & 14 boards with 41 points & 11 rebounds in the rematch. His games against rival Maryvale were equally impressive, scoring 44 points & 18 rebounds, followed by 26 points & 16 boards in a pair of victories. There was also a 35 point/13 rebound performance at Kenmore West.
In his final ECIC III game, Welch's Warriors needed a victory for the first league title in 54 years. To ensure another chapter in the legacy he would leave behind at Central, Welch exploded for 51 points and 16 rebounds, a career-high scoring output. He celebrated following the game with his team by cutting down the nets.
In the Section VI Class A2 quarterfinal against Lew-Port, Welch wore Lancer green in the form of defenders draped over him for four quarters. He dropped seven dimes to go with 25 points & 16 boards and led his team to an appearance at Buff State with an 83-36 win.
All season, Welch had been surpassing legends on the all-time scoring list. With a date against the Yale Cup champions from South Park looming on the big stage in the Class A2 semifinals, he was just 25 points away from passing the most legendary of them all in Campbell.
"We never talked about it once," Cullinan said. "We didn't even talk about it in the pregame - I had no doubt he was going to get it."
As fans continued to file into the Buffalo State Sports Arena on that Tuesday night, there was a palpable energy in the air and an overwhelming sense of the history that would be going down soon. When the game finally tipped off and Welch scored his first basket that was met with a raucous ovation, it felt almost surreal that the night had finally arrived.
"In all the time I've played and coached around here, that was by far one of the best atmospheres for a high school basketball game," said Cullinan. "There was so many people there that knew how big of a moment that was for high school basketball history."
An exciting first half saw Welch collect 18 points, leaving him just seven shy of history. But the excitement of the first 16 minutes was just a minor precursor to the fever pitch that would soon be reached in the arena.
Less than two minutes into the third quarter, it finally happened. Welch took an outlet pass and went end-to-end for the finish. The chase was over and there was a new goat in WNY. With Campbell in the crowd looking on, there was a brief stoppage to honor Welch's accomplishment. He embraced his mother and let out all the emotion that comes with a remarkable career spent climbing a mountain, only to finally stand at the very top.
"When he finally got the record I think there was a sense of relief, and along with that came a sense of accomplishment," said Cullinan. "It couldn't have happened to a better kid. There's not an arrogant bone in his body, he's just a super kid who loves basketball, loves competing, and loves working."
Remarkably, when the game resumed, the crescendo that was reached in the record-breaking moment just kept on going. Welch got even better, and possibly turned in the best single stanza on his five-year resume. With an array of hanging finishes and fall-away 3-pointers, Welch dropped 23 points in the third quarter to turn an 18-point halftime deficit into a two-point game heading into the final frame. The Warriors tied the game in the fourth quarter , before ultimately bowing out. Welch's career came to an end with a magnificent 45-point finale to bring his career total to 2,376 points - the new measure of scoring excellence in WNY. His final rebound of the game got him to an astounding 1,200 boards over five years.
Welch leaves WNY high school basketball as a player who would have been remembered forever just for the entertainment value alone that his incredible and unmatched skill set provided. However, his legacy ensures he will be remembered just as much for his tangible accomplishments - winning the school's first Section VI crown, ending a 54-year league title drought, and breaking a 27-year scoring record. Cheektowaga just may have to consider erecting a statue out front.
"Those are things that 25-30 years from now, you'll walk in our gym, see the banners on the wall, and say that was that period of time when Dom Welch was here," said Cullinan.
There may not be any banners up at Buff State to commemorate that historic Tuesday night, but any fan who was there to witness it will likely recall that night every time they find themselves back in the arena. One thing that is certain - no fan will ever forget watching the 2017 CC MVP.