RIVERSIDE, Mo. — The assembled students chanted, “Welty! Welty! Welty”
Annika Welty sheepishly walked to the table in front of the massive Evelyn Gates Award trophy for the biggest moment of a ceremony Thursday, Nov. 16 at Park Hill South High School. Always a little uncomfortable with the attention, Park Hill South’s 6-foot-3 star senior middle hitter lingered for just a moment before the winner took her seat next to the other three finalists for the honor given to the top volleyball player in the Kansas City metro area.
The location for the 14th annual Evelyn Gates Award ceremony took away some of the mystery. In 2016, Welty traveled to Blue Valley West High School as a finalist when the host school’s Madison Lilley kept the trophy.
“I was pretty anxious throughout the day,” said Welty, a two-time Missouri Volleyball Coaches Association all-state pick in Class 4. “Once I got up there and went through it, I was much better. It was a lot of fun. This experience has just been so much fun.”
Park Hill South welcomed finalists from St. James Academy (Allison Coens), Kearney (Callie Schwartzenbach) and Lee’s Summit (Claire Wagner) to Thursday’s assembly.
Welty ended up with the opportunity to celebrate the honor in front of family, teammates and friends. She started for each of the past three seasons, helping Park Hill South to back-to-back Class 4 district titles.
Park Hill South coach Karen Rule first saw Welty play in sixth grade. Always one of the tallest on the court, she stood out then and arrived in high school with plenty of potential.
Rule said she knew how special Welty would be in the year between her sophomore and junior seasons.
“Once she got here, she fell in love,” Rule said. “To be honest, it was her. She’s the one that decided that she wanted to be good. She could’ve gone either way. She could’ve been average, but she chose to be good.”
As a sophomore, Welty ranked second on the team in kills (221) to go with a team-high 28 blocks during Park Hill South’s 29-6-1 season that ended with a loss in the Class 4 District 15 title game. She increased her production to team-highs of 263 kills and 47 total blocks in a 31-2-1 2016 season that ended with a loss to St. Teresa’s Academy in the Class 4 quarterfinals.
Welty — committed to continue her career at Creighton — was the lone returning starter for Park Hill South this season, and she continued to diversify her game while leading by example for a roster that included three freshmen playing significant roles.
With career-highs in kills (274) and blocks (75), Welty helped take Park Hill South back to the playoffs, losing again to St. Teresa’s Academy — this time in sectionals. She also hit a team-high 33 service aces, a testament to her development.
“Annika is such a great kid — on and off the court,” Rule said. “When you have kids like this in the program, they’re few and far between. We get to coach a kid that’s a nice kid. She’s personable in the classroom. She’s a good student. She’s a good athlete.
“It’s just quite an honor, and she’ll truly be missed in our program because you don’t have many kids that have all of it. She’s not just a great athlete. She’s a great person.”
Welty made Park Hill South just the second school to have multiple winners of the Evelyn Gates Award, posthumously named for a retired histology technician at KU Medical Center who officiated high school and college volleyball, softball and basketball for more than 45 years in the Kansas City area. Gates, who died of cancer in May of 2003, also served as an advocate for girls high school sports.
With local television personality Leif Lisec serving as emcee, past winners of the award were also honored, including the inaugural recipient and current Park Hill South assistant coach Sammie Jo Williams and 2004 finalist and 2005 winner Erin Birmingham of Park Hill South. The connections made the day even more special for an overwhelmed winner.
Welty continued to receive attention after the ceremony, posing for photos with teammates, coaches and family in attendance. She kept up the smile, only breaking character for a moment during a lighthearted selfie with older brother and fellow standout Park Hill South athlete Hudson Welty.
“It’s such an amazing experience to be able to come back again (as a finalist),” Welty said. “I couldn’t be here without my team because they’re just so amazing and my coaches.
“I’m just so happy to be here and get to win this year.”