Zach Walton sits in his press conference chair holding the Colonial Athletic Association’s (CAA) championship trophy, which is draped in a cut basketball net.
It’s Tuesday night and Walton, a 2015 Morton High School graduate and a former WIBCA 2B Basketball Player of the Year, has just helped Drexel University’s men’s basketball team advance to the NCAA men’s basketball tournament for the first time in 25 years.
Walton, a 6-foot-6 swingman, scored eight points, hauled in six rebounds and knocked down a buzzer-beating 3-pointer at halftime as sixth-seeded Drexel took down fifth-seeded Elon, 63-56, in the CAA championship game on national television.
It’s been a long road for the redshirt senior, who’s journey included passing up a Division-II basketball scholarship to play at a junior college and overcoming a string of injuries. Now Walton, who’s gone from the rural outpost of Morton to the inner-city streets of Philadelphia, is on the cusp of playing in March Madness with hopes of leading his team on a Cinderella run.
Walton led the Timberwolves to back-to-back state championships (and undefeated seasons) in 2014 and 2015, and was the Associated Press 2B State Player of the Year as a senior. He set a three-game State 2B tournament scoring record as a senior, highlighted by 34 points in MWP’s championship-game win over Liberty, and averaged 20.3 points, 3.2 steals, 7.8 rebounds and 3.4 assists per game in his final prep year.
The scholarship offers came, most notably from D-II Central Washington University, to which he initially committed. After arriving on campus, he soon realized it wasn’t the right fit and transferred to Edmonds Community College in Lynnwood.
“I wanted more,” Walton said. “I didn't want to go to Central. I wanted to play at a Division-I school and I knew I was capable of it. So I just bet on myself.”
The bet paid off. Walton had a breakout freshman season for Edmonds, scoring 13.8 points with 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game to earn North Region Freshman of the Year honors and help the Tritons to a NWAC Championships Sweet 16 appearance.
He started off strong again as a sophomore in 2016-17 before a knee injury derailed his season in just the fourth game. He broke off nine millimeters of cartilage on the side of his knee, requiring arthroscopic surgery and a six-month recovery period with six weeks on crutches.
He came back the following year as a sophomore, where he earned first-team North Region honors after averaging 20.8 points and 9.4 rebounds per game.
Paul Fortier, one of the assistant men’s basketball coaches at Drexel, had ties to Seattle and knew the coaches at Edmonds. Fortier called Walton one day, visited him in Washington and started recruiting him for the Dragons.
Drexel flew Walton and his mother out to Philadelphia for an official campus visit and a scholarship offer. He accepted it about two weeks later.
“I liked it out here a lot and my mom liked it,” Walton said. “We’re right in the middle of center-city Philadelphia, too, so it’s a lot different.”
Walton, a graduate student, is now in his third year at Drexel. In his first year, the 2018-19 season, he became a starter after four games before suffering a season-ending wrist injury during the seventh game that required a screw to hold it together. He averaged 9.6 points and 4.6 rebounds before the injury.
“It’s unfortunate, but I’ve been healthy since then,” Walton said.
Walton played in all 33 games and started 20 of those during his redshirt junior season in 2019-20, and was third on the team with 12.2 points per game while adding 4.4 rebounds. He finished the year ranked ninth in the conference in blocked shots.
This season, Walton is averaging 10.6 points a game and is shooting 48% from the field and 39% from downtown.
The Dragons were the No. 6 seed heading into the CAA tournament. They beat No. 3 Charleston in the quarterfinals, 80-75, with Walton going 5 of 6 from long range for 17 points. Drexel then topped No. 2 Northeastern, 74-67, in the semifinals, with Walton scoring a team-high 15 points. His three-game run landed him on the All-CAA tournament team.
Now, the guy who grew up in the sticks of Morton is on the cusp of playing in the NCAA Tournament — for a team that hasn’t gone dancing in 25 years, no less.
“I always dreamed of it and knew it was possible,” Walton said. “I talked with (head coach Zach) Spiker about it. He always believed we’d be able to do it. He’s been building the right culture for the team and getting the right guys … and now we’re here.”
For now, Walton and the Dragons are resting up after their CAA championship win as they prepare for Selection Sunday on March 14. Due to the pandemic, the entire tournament is being held in Indianapolis this year. The Dragons are flying there on Saturday, where Walton and his teammates will watch the selection show together and see which seed their team gets.
“It’s crazy,” Walton said. “Some people talked to me about it saying I’m going to remember Selection Sunday for a while. It hasn’t really hit me yet, probably because it’s not here yet. But I know when it gets here, it’s going to be a surreal moment. I’m just going to take it all in.”