Zach Walton had the misfortune of having the best seat in the house for the Edmonds Community College men’s basketball team’s worst season since Kyle Gray became the program’s head coach in 2012.
Walton missed all but five games of the Tritons’ 2016-17 season because of a knee injury that required surgery.
In the star forward’s absence Edmonds slumped to a 5-22 record and a last-place finish in the Northwest Athletic Conference’s North Region, an unfathomable position for a program that finished as the NWAC runner-up twice in the previous four years.
But Walton is back to 100 percent this season, and the Tritons are back in their usual lofty perch.
Edmonds faces Everett in a crucial battle for NWAC North Region supremacy this weekend, and if the Tritons end up scoring a signature victory, no doubt Walton will have been a major factor.
“We try not to look that much forward,” said Walton, whose team has a home game Wednesday against Shoreline prior to Saturday’s big showdown at Everett. “But we’ve already played in a few big games this year, so it’s just going to be another one for us. We’re all excited to go out there and prove we’ve been working hard to be the best team.”
Walton is in the midst of a monster season for an Edmonds squad that was tied for third in the most recent NWAC Men’s Basketball Coaches Poll.
The 6-foot-6 sophomore forward from the tiny town of Morton in southwest Washington is averaging 19.9 points, 8.1 rebounds and 3.0 assists per game for the 13-4 Tritons, ranking 11th in the league in scoring and ninth in rebounding.
He’s shooting a crisp 58.7 percent from the floor, which is seventh in the league. He’s scored in double figures in all but one of Edmonds’ games, and twice he’s surpassed the 30-point barrier.
“He’ll shoot it from the outside, which he really worked on in the offseason,” Gray said when describing Walton’s game. “He’ll take you inside in the post, he’ll take you off the dribble. If there’s an NBA comparison, he kind of reminds me a little bit of [the San Antonio Spurs’] Kawhi Leonard, because he does a little bit of everything.”
Edmonds sure could have used some of that versatility last season.
Walton had an impressive freshman campaign in 2015-16, putting up 13.8 points, 5.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game as he was named the North Region Freshman of the Year. With his help the Tritons reached the NWAC Basketball Championship’s round of 16.
Then Walton was on the verge of exploding last season, putting up huge performances in each of Edmonds’ first three games.
But in the first minute of the Tritons’ fourth contest Walton planted on a Euro-step move and felt his knee give. Walton suffered cartilage damage that required arthroscopic surgery to repair, ending his season — and effectively ending Edmonds’ season as well.
“It was tough at first,” Walton said about missing most of the season. “But then I just kind of thought of it as a blessing in disguise. Obviously we didn’t have a great season last year, and I was able to come back to this team right now and we’re doing great so far.”
Walton has been the biggest factor in that turnaround.
“It’s night and day,” Gray said about the comparison between last season and this season. “Other guys who we brought in can play a little more their role other than going above their skis a little bit. Without a doubt he’s our leader. He goes hard every single day and the other guys take note of that and they follow suit. It’s a big difference. All the guys have so much confidence when he’s out there.”
Now Walton is back on track toward playing for a four-year college. Walton said he’s been contacted by multiple NCAA Division II programs about the possibility of continuing his basketball career, and Gray said there’s even been some interest from Division I schools.
But Walton has more immediate business at hand. He and the Tritons have their hands full in Saturday’s heavyweight clash with Everett. The Trojans are also 13-4, and they are ranked second in the NWAC poll, just above Edmonds.
Everett has it’s own do-everything star in sophomore guard Gio Jackson, who’s lighting it up to the tune of 16 points, 8.7 rebounds and 6.4 assists per contest.
Whichever team prevails Saturday will have an early leg up in the race for the North Region title.
“It’ll be a dogfight,” Gray said. “It’ll be fun, I’m sure. No matter what the situation is between the two teams it’s a big rivalry game, so both teams will be ready to play. Obviously we try to take it one game at a time, and we’ll get to that game when it comes. But there will be no need for any rah-rah speeches for that one, they’ll be ready to go.”
And no one will be more ready to go than Walton.
If you have an idea for a community sports story, e-mail Nick Patterson at firstname.lastname@example.org.