Welch reflects on Academy experiences, looks towards future

U.S Air Force Academy, Colo -- Air Force Academy center Nick Welch is one of six seniors on the academy men's basketball team who will be cherishing every second of Tuesday's National Invitation Tournament semifinal game against Clemson University at Madison Square Garden.

As the team finished practice today, Cadet Welch said he and a few other players were talking about how much this NIT trip means to them, and how today might be their final practice together. But, through all the adversity this team has overcome, there's still at least one game left to play at what many sports fans call "The Mecca of College Basketball."

"I'm just going to try and let it all soak in," Cadet Welch said. "Madison Square Garden is so rich with tradition. A lot of different events happened here. Just to walk up there and be able to say I played on Madison Square Garden's court will be one of the greatest accomplishments of my life."

This year's 26-8 record has been the most successful in history for the Air Force Falcons, and the team is hoping to add a few more wins under their belts before the NIT is over.

For seniors like Cadet Welch, who's been a part of this team for almost five years, transitioning from cadet to Air Force officer might be a challenging one. But, the 24-year-old said the main thing he's been working on lately is wedding plans.

"I've been working for a while now on getting my wedding organized," he said. "I'm getting married the day after graduation."

After Cadet Welch takes his wedding vows, he will use 60 days of leave to move to his first assignment and spend time with his new bride-to-be.

"I'm going to Barksdale Air Force Base, which is two hours from where my dad lives," Cadet Welch said. "For my 60 days of leave, we are going to take everything to my dad's house and take a vacation."

After the vacation and honeymoon is over, Cadet Welch will get back to business working as a maintenance officer in the 2nd Bomb Wing at Barksdale.

One of the biggest things Cadet Welch will miss about the academy is all the leadership opportunities he was given. Cadet Welch has been one of the team captains for the Falcons for the past two years, and this year he was able to really work with the younger cadets and pass on the plethora of knowledge he's attained. He also said learning to be a leader at the academy will make me a more well-rounded Air Force officer.

"Officers are the leaders of the Air Force, so it's a big responsibility to lead several different troops under you. A huge part of that comes with basketball," he said. "I can easily say I wasn't so good at it a couple years ago, but through the different years and trials, I've learned you've got to be a leader through the good times and the bad times. A lot of different things go into leadership that you don't really think about, and you get to learn a lot of those different lessons playing basketball. I think it's going to be huge for my Air Force career."

When asked if he had any future plans for his basketball career, Cadet Welch looked off into the distance for a moment and said he'll most likely be a coach someday.

"Eventually, whenever I separate from the Air Force, I'd like to go into coaching and use a lot of the different leadership skills I've learned to coach," he said. I'd like to think that the years of experience I have with basketball already, I've already become a player and a coach to the young guys on the team. When I graduated from high school, I got to coach a little bit for my high school team. It really turned me on to coaching. I want to say I'd like it more than playing, but I haven't fully experienced all that coaching has to offer."

Being a coach and mentor has always been one of Cadet Welch's role with the Falcons, and he said he hopes the main thing he passed on to them was to always be selfless in their actions and to put others first.

"I think the hardest thing, which becomes the easiest thing, is teaching young guys that everything isn't always about them," he said. "To accomplish something great, you have to be willing to put something else ahead of yourself. It's goes along with the Air Force and service before self. I know when I was a sophomore and we won the championship, I just remember that feeling and how amazing it was. I never had a feeling like that because it was accomplishing something greater than myself. It took something greater than myself to accomplish that. If you want to go places in life, if you want to be successful, you have to learn to put other things and people ahead of yourself."

Many people have helped Cadet Welch throughout his Air Force Academy career, and he said they are truly the ones who have inspired him to give more of himself and make a difference in everything he does in life.

"I'd just like to thank everybody that supported me, and got me to the point where I am because I wouldn't be here if it wasn't for thousands of people who have been in my life," he said. "I truly understand that, and one thing I can say is that I've given everything I could to this program. Whether it was practicing every practice, having five surgeries and battling through those injuries, I'm always willing to give back. Why not give back to something that's given me so much? That's the way I look at it.

Hopefully, as the spotlights shine on the floor of Madison Square Garden Tuesday night, Cadet Welch will be able to reach down one more time and help Air Force add another win to an already record-breaking season. If not, there are always a few more wedding invitations to send out before graduation.