The first time Mesa Ridge faced Colorado Springs Metro League rival Sierra this season, one of the Stallions' top scorers, Malaynah Palaroan, who averaged 10.7 points per game this year, went off for 19 against the Grizzlies.
The second time, Mesa Ridge coach Jeff Beatty had Chloe Welch defend her and Palaroan finished with six. Welch scored a season-high 27.
Four days before Pueblo East played Mesa Ridge in the third round of the 4A state playoffs, Eagles leading scorer Kayla Albo scored 26 points against Canon City. When the Eagles met the Grizzlies, Beatty gave Welch the task of defending Albo and she scored nine, five less than her season average.
"She's stellar defensively," Beatty said of Welch, The Gazette's Girls' Basketball 5A-3A Peak Performer of the Year, who led the Grizzlies with 18 points per game. "Her ability to defend other guards is incredible. She's so long and fast."
Besides leading the Grizzlies in scoring, Welch finished second on the team with 152 rebounds and 20 blocks. She also led Mesa Ridge with 71 steals.
"I always wanted the duty to guard the hardest player," Welch said.
Welch relishes the opportunity to be able to shut down top scorers. The 5-foot-9 junior said defense is more important to her than putting up big numbers offensively.
"I know that without good defense, you can't win any games because if you let the other team score, then it will give them a lift and it will take away your momentum," Welch said. "You can't get your own momentum as a team without defensive stops and turnovers.
"Even if I score 20 points and I don't play good defense, I'm more upset about that because then I let my team down," she said. "Everything starts at defense for me."
In the absence of former Mesa Ridge standout Kylee Shook, who plays for Louisville, the Grizzles have continued to be dominant. Much of that is thanks to Welch and her ability to be a force on defense and offense.
On the way to their fourth quarterfinals appearance in five years, Welch scored her 1,000th career point, a feat few reach in their high school career, let alone hitting the mark as a junior.
Welch's 1,000th point came in the third-round playoff victory over Pueblo East. The Grizzlies' season ended with a quarterfinals loss to Pueblo West, in which Welch scored a game-high 25 points and had six rebounds.
"She's an intense competitor, so she makes sure that it doesn't matter which drill we're doing in practice, everybody has to compete," Beatty said. "She pushes other players to be better and she really pushes competition in practice. She wants everybody competing every minute."
The Grizzlies will lose three seniors next year, but with the return of Welch and teammate Ashley Bowen, who led Mesa Ridge with 71 blocks and was second on the team 12.3 points per game, Beatty expects the Grizzlies to make another quarterfinals appearance or advance even further.
He believes Welch can be even better.
"Every year I think she's really good and then she comes back the next year and she's quite a bit better," Beatty said. "I fully expect her to be a 24- to 25-point-a-game scorer next year just because of the amount of work that she puts in and how hard she pushes herself.
"I expect lots of double-doubles out of her next year. She's a great kid and she's a really good teammate. She's a fun kid to have around."