The girls’ basketball program at St. Elizabeth High School has a long and proud history, one that includes five state championships. Next month, the centerpiece of the first champion will take her place among Delaware’s all-time great sports figures.
Penny Welsh, a two-time first-team all-state selection for the Vikings, is being inducted into the Delaware Sports Museum and Hall of Fame during a banquet on May 22. She is one of nine inductees.
“It was a total surprise,” Welsh said of receiving the news about her selection to the hall. “I never expected it. I was totally shocked when I got the call, and very humbled to be part of the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame. It’s kind of cool, a great honor.”
Welsh led St. Elizabeth to its first state title in 1979, her senior season, one season after losing in the final by two points to Dickinson. She recalled the outstanding talent the Vikings had and the support of the St. Elizabeth community.
“The team, the coaching staff and the St. E’s community were … extremely passionate, fiercely loyal fans. They just gathered around our team and supported us after losing in ’78,” she said from Raleigh, N.C., where she has lived for the past 16 years.
The Vikings bounced back in 1979, compiling a record of 21-2 under second-year coach Frank Aiello. Welsh scored 28 in the 46-38 win over Tower Hill and had 113 points in four tournament games.
“We only lost a couple of players from the year before. When you have a great entire team that supports everybody, and the coaching staff is pretty darn dedicated, and you have a tight-knit community, it really makes for great competition. My teammates, they were great,” she said.
Part of the reason for the team’s success, she said, was that most of them had played together for years as members of the parish CYO program, then in the summers. She also credited her coaches, Aiello and Shirley Bounds, who led the Vikings in Welsh’s freshman and sophomore years.
“I played volleyball for her, and basketball,” Welsh said. “She recognized I had some talent and started me as a freshman. She also helped us strategize and let us run some motion offense.”
Aiello, who won two more state titles with St. Elizabeth before coaching the women’s programs at Goldey Beacom College and Wilmington University, brought in more intricate plays.
“I had two really great coaches,” Welsh said.
Bounds, who has been a member of the faculty at St. Elizabeth since 1974 and is retiring as head of school at the end of this academic year, said Welsh brought a buzz to “The Box,” the school’s cozy gymnasium that served as its home court.
“Penny Welsh was a star from her first step onto the basketball court as a ninth-grader,” Bounds recalled. “She used the court to full advantage with accurate shots from the perimeter and in the paint. Her skill set included rebounding, ball-handling and an intuitive understanding of team play.”
Bounds added that Welsh was a team leader and a good student who kept teammates and coaches entertained with her sense of humor.
From Wilmington, Welsh went to the University of Pittsburgh, where she was the Panthers’ most valuable player as a freshman and an honorable mention all-American as a sophomore. She transferred to the University of Nevada-Las Vegas and starred for the Runnin’ Rebels, leading them in scoring both seasons she spent in the desert.
She earned degrees in United States history and education at UNLV and minored in Latin American history. She had applied for a graduate assistantship at Las Vegas when her father called her to say a team from New York had drafted her for a new women’s professional league. He suggested she stay in school. Welsh said the league folded a few months later before it ever got started.
Her playing days, however, were not over. She played for an AAU team in Texas and traveled to Australia to play in an Olympic-style tournament.
“We ended up winning the bronze,” Welsh recalled.
She also played one season in Italy, traveling to Europe on one day’s notice.
“It was kind of fun. I went over there and played a little bit in Milan,” she said.
Back in the States, Welsh worked with some young players and made her way back to Pittsburgh, where she worked for FedEx for 16 years. She ended up in Raleigh, where she now works for Blue Cross.
Welsh looks back fondly at her childhood and her education at St. Elizabeth. She appreciates the sacrifices her parents made to send their children to Catholic school and said it was worth it.
“I really saw a foundation for being a Christian and compassionate and kind, and being a good person. My parents were very supportive of a great Christian education, and I’m glad they did.
“(St. Elizabeth) was very enlightening, very transformative. They set me up for success for the rest of my career.”
The other members of the Class of 2018 are:
- Jimmy Allen, a graduate of Cape Henlopen High School who was a basetball and track standout at the University of New Haven. He also spent 16 years as an assistant basketball coach at New Haven.
- Clinton Burke, a two-time wrestling All-American at the University of Oklahoma. He was the NCAA runner-up in 1983 and third in 1984, both times at 134 pounds. He is a graduate of William Penn High School.
- Sarah Cashman Gersky, a multiple-sport standout at Tower Hill School and Colgate University. Gersky led Colgate basketball in scoring in three of the four years she was there. She also excelled in lacrosse and field hockey.
- Tom Fort, a leader in officiating and organizing track and field events and amateur sports throughout the state. He officiated at nearly 1,000 events at all levels from 1973 until his death in 2017.
- Bunny Miller, a baseball catching standout at Howard High School, Delaware State College and the Wilmington Semi-Pro League. He also played football at Del State and was an educator for nearly 40 years.
- Heidi Pierce, a first-team All-American in lacrosse at Johns Hopkins, the first in program history. She led the Jays to their first NCAA Division I tournament appearance in 2004. She was Delaware’s lacrosse player of the year three times while at St. Andrew’s School, where she also excelled in field hockey, basketball and swimming.
- Larry Shenk, who led the Philadelphia Phillies’ public relations’ office for 44 years. He was formerly a sportswriter for the Wilmington News Journal and remains active with the Phillies as vice president for alumni relations.
- Dave Williams, a first-team all-state pitcher for Caesar Rodney High School who played six seasons of Major League Baseball for three teams. He currently coaches high school baseball in Georgia.
The inductions will take place at the hall’s 43rd annual banquet at the Chase Center on the Riverfront beginning at 5:30 p.m. Tickets are $65 and available at www.desports.org/events. The deadline for reserving tickets is May 11.