Purdue’s Zach Edey was ‘giant amongst kids’ as youth baseball star with Division-I potential

GLENDALE, Ariz. — Jeff Wolburgh wasn’t going to take no for an answer.

He was holding Little League baseball tryouts and spotted this large kid who took part in the workout.

Eventually, after weeks of convincing, the child’s parents gave it a shot.

Zach Edey has become one of college basketball’s most dominating players at Purdue. USA TODAY Sports via Reuters Con

It was Zach Edey, who years later would become the most dominant college basketball player in the country, the 7-foot-4 superstar center for Purdue.

But back then growing up in the small Canadian neighborhood of Leaside in Toronto, his sport of choice was baseball, starting at the age of 8.

For the next seven years, Wolburgh coached Edey with his North Toronto baseball club.

“The whole experience was just amazing. Other than my son and my nephew, who were on the team, I would remember Zach for the rest of my life,” he said. “He was that memorable of a baseball player. He wasn’t the most talented, but he was the biggest and the strongest. … He would hit the ball so hard, the pitcher, shortstop and center fielder would run away. He never hit the ball in the air, always on the ground. But it was so hard and almost dangerous, nobody stepped in front of it.”

Added Wolburgh: “He was literally a giant amongst kids.”

He was a first baseman and a pitcher, towering over everyone else.

Zach Edey was a “giant amongst kids” with his North Toronto baseball club, Jeff Wolburgh said. Courtesy of North Toronto Baseball

Eric Stickney, one of Edey’s youth baseball coaches who brought him to Leaside Baseball, had to bring a birth certificate to games to prove Edey’s age.

Nobody believed a kid that big was so young.

At the age of 14, he had grown to 6-10, and pitching became his strength.

He threw in the mid-80s with a heavy ball and his long arms enabled him to get on top of hitters.

Stickney and Wolburgh believed he could play at the Division I level.

From there, who knew what could happen.

Zach Edey is pictured with his Leaside baseball team. Courtesy of Leaside Baseball

“In his early days, he was a better hitter. But when he was 13, 14, 15, he was definitely a better pitcher,” Wolburgh said. “He went to IMG Academy for basketball. I honestly think if he went to IMG Academy for baseball, he would’ve had a Division I scholarship for baseball. … [If he stuck with baseball] I think he would be in a Division I school in his fourth year, and MLB teams would be looking at him. Obviously he made the right choice in basketball. But if he would’ve put all his eggs in that [baseball] basket, he would be in the same position.”

As Edey continued to grow, the same question kept coming up: Why didn’t he play basketball?

Edey once said he didn’t want to play it because it was what every tall person in Canada did.

But baseball was getting more difficult to stick with the older he got, and the questions only increased in frequency.

“There were a lot of things, it was mainly my shoulder. I kind of outgrew baseball in a way,” Edey said Thursday, as Purdue prepared to face N.C. State in the Final Four on Saturday. “My shoulder gave out on me. I was throwing too hard for my muscle development, is what [doctors] were saying. Every time I pitched, my arm was hurting. I figured that probably wasn’t going to be in my long-term plans like I hoped it would be. … Hitting was fun, but I got too big for hitting.”

Zach Edey and Purdue face NC State in the Final Four on Saturday. USA TODAY NETWORK

So he turned to the hardwood, joining the varsity as Leaside High School his sophomore year.

When Edey broke the news to another one of his baseball coaches, Todd Betts, he was in tears.

Betts responded: “Save me tickets when you play the Raptors one day.”

He eventually attended powerhouse IMG Academy in Florida and went to Purdue.

Last weekend, he led the Boilermakers to their first Final Four appearance since 1980 with a masterful 40-point, 16-rebound performance against Tennessee.

Zach Edey compiled 40 points and 16 rebounds in Purdue’s win against Tennessee in the Elite Eight. USA TODAY NETWORK

He will soon be the first consensus back-to-back National Player of the Year winner since Ralph Sampson in 1982-83 and is a projected first-round NBA draft pick.

Clearly, he made the right choice by giving up his baseball dream, though his coaches still fondly remember his talent on the diamond.

Betts remembered Edey striking out 10 and hitting a home run in one of his last games with him.

He was starting to get on the radar of college baseball coaches.

Betts also believes that baseball has helped him develop in his sport of choice.

“On ESPN, they were talking about how good his hand-eye coordination is. Where do you think he got that from?” Betts said. “I know that helped him with his basketball.”

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