Five years ago, Royall senior forward Tristan Welchlin never would have imagined how integral basketball would soon become to his life.

At the time, Welchlin was about to enter eighth grade, his first year at a public school after previously being homeschooled his entire life. It was a time of significant change, which he admits wasn’t always easy.

“It was actually really hard for me because I was socially awkward and it was hard for me to make friends at first,” Welchlin said of the transition.

“Going into (public) school, I knew like two kids — I knew basically no one. But I told my mom it’s what I wanted to do because I was sick of just being at home by myself.”

However, he would soon get an unlikely assist in his transition from a sport he knew next to nothing about: basketball.

Prior to eighth grade, Welchlin says he “never touched a basketball” and essentially didn’t follow any sports at all. But while sitting at lunch one day, he was convinced by a few of his classmates to go out for the basketball team and give the sport a try.

“They told me I should play because I’m tall,” said the 6 foot 3 inch Welchlin. “Once I started playing, I was awful. I couldn’t dribble between my legs or anything. But I guess I have a drive to be good at everything, so I always work on my game and always want to be better.”

In his first year playing basketball, Welchlin only scored 15 points the whole season. Nevertheless, he started fostering a love for the game and, more importantly, began making friends thanks to his connection to the team.

“(Basketball) is definitely where my friend group started out and that’s where my main, close friends are right now,” Welchlin said. “It helped me in interacting with other people right away, and I just grew up from there.”

During the following season — his freshman year of high school — an inexperienced Welchlin was relegated to the JV squad while most of his friends in his grade played for the varsity team. He credits this as one of the biggest factors in his growth as a player.

“All my teammates around me … they were all on varsity their freshman year,” Welchlin said. “So that made me want to get better so I could be with them.”

“Being on JV my freshman year, where I actually got to lead the team by myself instead of having all the good players around me, it helped a lot.”

He continued to make strides on the court, earning a spot on the varsity squad during his sophomore season as the first man off the bench. Welchlin finally became a regular varsity starter last season as a junior, where he averaged 14.0 points and 4.8 rebounds per game on his way to being selected to the All-Scenic Bluffs Conference first team.

Senior guard Jaydyn Enzenbacher, one of Welchlin’s best friends on the basketball team and an all-conference player in his own right, said he never would have thought his friend could have come this far on the court in such a short amount of time.

“Seeing him that first practice in eighth grade, he just looked like a tall, awkward guy,” Enzenbacher said. “But we liked him and we encouraged him to keep going. Freshman year was when I noticed he had really gotten better and ever since then it’s been nonstop. He’s become a huge part of this team.”

“He can get up there and throw a couple dunks down and get all those rebounds. He’s got a nice spin into a hook that he just scores on defenders all night long (with).”

Royall head coach Scott Uppena echoed those sentiments, lauding Welchlin’s development as a player and willingness to listen to coaching in his pursuit of constant improvement.

“Over the course of the last four to five years, he’s really fallen in love with the game,” Uppena said. “It’s been a long process for him to get where he’s at and he still has a long way to go, but he’s the type of kid that I wish was introduced to basketball when he was about 10 years old instead of 15 years old. But he’s a good kid who listens well and works hard.”

“He spends a lot of time in the gym. It’s not uncommon to get a message from him on Sunday saying ‘hey, can I get in the gym and shoot?’ And the answer is always yes.”

For Uppena, who also serves as the Royall Middle/High School principal, it’s not Welchlin’s individual progress on the court he’s most proud of, but rather his success as a teammate and in the classroom.

“I think, more importantly as a person, he’s developed into a good leader,” Uppena said. “The stuff I see him do during the school day, outside of the basketball court, is more impressive and important to me than what I see on the floor with him. He’s a smart kid, he’s a good kid, he’s genuine and — as far as when he leaves Royall — the sky’s the limit.”

There is plenty Welchlin and the Panthers have left they want to accomplish this season, his newfound love for basketball does not have to end when his high school career does. In fact, several colleges have contacted Welchlin about possibly playing basketball for them.

As of now, his plan is to attend the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, where he will try out for the Eagles basketball team. It would be yet another stop in an unconventional journey to basketball success for a player who, five years ago, wouldn’t have been able to tell you the difference between a double dribble and a pick and roll.

“Even being on varsity my sophomore year, I never would have imagined that because I was so bad my eighth grade year,” Welchlin said of his success. “(Basketball) is something I’m really passionate about and, whenever I have a chance, it’s what I’ll do.”