Cole McKenzie almost gave up on baseball.
In fact, he was mere days away from giving up on his dream of playing college baseball.
“All my friends were going to Montana State Billings,” McKenzie said, “and I was close to just going there as a student or to the University of Montana.”
McKenzie had put together an impressive baseball career, but had no scholarship offers to be a student-athlete at a Division-I program. He played in the Little League World Series for Montana’s team and went as far as the U.S. Championship round in 2011. McKenzie also earned two all-conference and one all-state honors while with the Billings Royals in American Legion Baseball.
However, the prospect of continuing his pro career would be arduous. That didn’t rattle McKenzie.
He was willing to walk on somewhere but was stuck between two schools.
“One night I was just sitting at the dinner table with my parents seeing if I was even going to play baseball in college,” McKenzie said, “because it was getting to the point that it had to be a yes to either Whitworth or Yakima.”
McKenzie didn’t get any scholarship money because of how late in the process he committed. He found Yakima through the help of Baseball Northwest, a showcase event for high school baseball prospects.
Yakima Valley Yaks head coach Kyle Krustangel spotted McKenzie in 2016 and wanted him to play in “the Palm Springs of Washington.” So, McKenzie walked on with the Yaks shortly before the start of the 2016-17 academic year.
“Going into it I was super nervous because it was college ball and I didn’t know what to expect,” McKenzie said. “With Yakima winning the NWAC the year before I knew it was going to be big shoes to fill.”
Even though he felt the pressure, McKenzie lived up to and exceeded every expectation that the coaching staff had for him. McKenzie slashed .396/.530/.532 with 21 stolen bases to lead the Yaks in all four categories in 2017.
After McKenzie’s impressive 2017 season with the Yaks, he joined the AppleSox in Krustangel’s first season coaching the team and hit .193 in 30 games. Though he struggled, he bounced back with a phenomenal spring for Yakima Valley. The sophomore slashed .358/.484/.556 and though he didn’t lead his team in any of those categories on a stacked Yaks team, he earned high praise form his head coach.
“Cole probably put together the best two years by any Yaks or NWAC player ever,” Krustangel said. “The numbers that he put up were phenomenoal but that’s he an even better person is remarkable. He is the type of guy that we try to get with this program, both with the Yaks and the AppleSox.”
For his part, McKenzie loved his time in Yakima playing for Krustangel. Not only did he put up incredible stats, he made lasting friendships. In 2018, he played with Johnny Sage, who he met in 2016 at the Baseball Northwest showcase.
“That guy will be my best friend forever,” McKenzie said. “He’s incredible. He’s supportive and always there for me and I’m always there for him. I kind of convinced him to come to Yakima even though he had better offers but I think he wanted to go there and have a blast with me.“
McKenzie and Sage both left for Purdue following the 2018 NWAC season. Their friendship continued on the field in the summer as they played for the AppleSox in both 2018 and 2019 (McKenzie played two non-league games for the Sox last summer). They will return to Purdue this fall getting ready to be teammates together for parts of five consecutive seasons of summer and school ball.
“The guy’s a great ballplayer but really just a genuine guy too, one of my best friends,” Sage said. “I haven’t played with that pure of a hitter in a long, long time. Off the field, the guy handles his business very well. He’s going to play baseball for a long time.”
McKenzie was ecstatic when he got the call to play at Purdue during his second season with Yakima. Not only would he get to play with Sage again, but he’d also get to fulfill his dream of playing Division-I baseball.
“ A couple schools were talking to me,” McKenzie said. “I didn’t have a school that I really wanted to go to. One day Purdue called while I was on the bus and I was like ‘holy cow guys, Purdue called me,’ like, no way! Big 10 baseball, it’s power five. That’s the dream, that’s what I wanted to do so I knew at the time that that’s where I wanted to go.”
Things didn’t start off swimmingly in the 2019 season for McKenzie. Through his first 32 games, McKenzie was hitting just .242 at the plate.
However, he turned it around. McKenzie reached base safely in each of his final 22 games and ended the season on a nine-game hitting streak. He recorded a season-best 11-game hitting streak from April 13-28, which one of his four different hitting streaks of at least six games. He ended up leading Purdue with a .317 AVG, .407 OBP, 25 walks, 65 hits and 205 AB.
That continued in the summer season when McKenzie joined the AppleSox. He immediately stepped in as the AppleSox centerfielder and batted third in all 29 games that he played in. Though he’s been sidelined with a sprained left wrist that left him out of action since July 12, McKenzie’s .370/.466/.481 slash line still leads the AppleSox. His current 18-game on-base streak is the fifth-longest in the West Coast League this summer. McKenzie has recorded 12 multi-hit games, including four three-hit games. He has recorded three different hitting streak hits of at least five games.
“I was struggling for a while at Purdue,” McKenzie said, “but I turned it around and kept riding that into summer ball. It’s turned out pretty well for me so far.”
After this season, McKenzie will go back to Purdue and pursue another dream: playing professional baseball. Though he was Third-Team All-Big Ten, the Boilermakers finished 20-34 and second-to-last in the Big Ten with a 7-16 record. If McKenzie can get off to a strong start and put together another impressive season, perhaps he can help the program and his own draft potential at the same time.
If professional baseball doesn’t work out, McKenzie has other plans. He’s willing to stay in school as a backup and/or after playing plan but make no mistake, McKenzie won’t give up on his dream to play in the majors until he’s told he can’t.
“It’s something I’m really working for,” McKenzie said, “but if not, physical therapy school will be there for me. Possibly at Purdue, I really like it there, but I might come back home, be closer to the family.”
Regardless of what he chooses to do, McKenzie has already overcome enough adversity to prove that if he says he wants to do something, he should be taken seriously.