Ever since he was a kid, Delta High School Baseball head coach Devin Wilburn wanted to play baseball.
He stood out as a pitcher at Wapahani High School in Selma, Indiana, and secured a scholarship from Ball State University to play Division I baseball. Wilburn’s dreams quickly began to look like reality and he felt he was on his way to getting selected in the MLB Draft.
Everything changed when Wilburn woke up one morning during his sophomore season at Ball State with stomach pain. After a significant amount of time dealing with this pain, Wilburn was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and underwent a medical procedure to remove non-cancerous polyps from his stomach in 2012.
Wilburn said around the same time as these health concerns began to escalate, Ball State Baseball head coach Rich Maloney was hired. He remembers Maloney calling to introduce himself to every player and his first-ever conversation with Maloney being significant.
“I just said ‘I don't know if I'm gonna be able to play or not, I'm trying to figure it out,’” Wilburn said. “I just told him my story, I told him everything that happened and he talked to me on the phone for like an hour and a half. We just talked about it and he didn't owe me anything, it just meant a lot to me because he was just so nice and I could tell he genuinely cared about my well-being.”
Wilburn said Maloney waited about five weeks until he reached out to him again, giving Wilburn proper time to make his decision. When Maloney finally called, Wilburn already knew his decision.
“I couldn't physically pick up the phone and call because I didn't want it to be over,” Wilburn said. “So finally after about five weeks, he called me and just said, ‘I'm not trying to rush this, but if you're not coming back, we have to know if we have this money available or not.’
I just broke down and I cried and I told him, ‘I'm not gonna be able to do it. I tried to get back into it.’ He prayed with me and talked to me on the phone for like an hour again and he was a guy that had never met me before and he stuck with me.”
Wilburn’s baseball dreams were seemingly over. The game he had played, loved and made his life, left him behind after 15 years.
Wilburn didn't pick up a baseball for two years and finally did so in 2015 when his friend wanted to play a game of catch with him. He remembers his friend commenting on how good he looked throwing the baseball and that he should consider getting back into shape to try and make a run at giving collegiate baseball another shot.
A short time later, Wilburn went to a walk-on tryout at Ball State and Maloney offered him a spot on the roster. Wilburn knew his chances of being drafted had passed him by, but his love for the game never would. It was during his return to the Cardinals for his final year of eligibility that his future was formed.
“I think towards the end of my playing career, when I knew at that point that pro ball was not going to be an option for me, I think it was kind of like, “how do I stay connected to the game? How do I not enter the real world,” Wilburn said.
If I didn't go back and play, I don't know what would have actually happened with me in my life because I never would have met Rhett Goodmiller, who was our assistant that got me connected with Coach [Kyle] Gould over at Taylor [University]. So, I don't know if I'd be the coach at Delta right now, I don’t know what I would’ve done.”
His coaching journey included a stint as a pitching coach at Taylor University in 2016-18, a brief stay at Anderson University in 2018 as an assistant before he landed at Ball State as an assistant in 2019, when he then accepted a job at Countryside High School, a school in Clearwater, Florida, where he would coach during the fall of 2019-20 (COVID-19 cut the season short), before returning to Taylor as an assistant in 2020-21, to finally landing a head coaching job at Delta High School for the 2022 season. Wilburn said he’s modeled much of his coaching style off what he’s learned from mentors like Gould and Maloney, in that he strives to instill character in his players.
“I told people when I first got the job, ‘I wish I could make every single guy in this room a big-league baseball player but I can't do that, or I'd make way more money than I do, but we're trying to help make them big league dads, big-league husbands, big-league community service members,’” Wilburn said. “I hope I win 1,000 games in my career, it's obviously probably not gonna happen, but, if I got invited to 1000 weddings, it's just as good.”
Ball State Baseball head coach Rich Maloney said he has seen a litany of former players go on to become baseball coaches, where he aims to help them as men as well as coaches.
“It brings great joy, that's what you want to do,” Maloney said. “You want to mentor guys and have them add value to people regardless of what profession they choose. So, these guys chose coaching and those high school kids are lucky to have them because they're gonna do far more than just baseball.”
Delta senior pitcher Nick Crabtree is committed to Taylor University for baseball, where Wilburn was on staff, helping scout the player he would eventually coach. Crabtree has gone to Delta Community Schools his entire life, and has been in Delta’s high school baseball program for four years.
Crabtree has experienced ups and downs with Delta baseball and feels Wilburn has brought something different to the table for his final season with the school that raised him.
“Essentially a new perspective,” Crabtree said. “We only had three or four returning varsity players that played quite a bit [last season], and a lot of them were on JV last year that haven't got very much varsity minutes, so, it's kind of like bringing up a whole new team and I think he's done a great job with that and just trying to rebuild the culture.”
He said we may not win every baseball game but when you come out of here you're gonna be more of a man than when you came in. He's trying to teach us life lessons as well as coaching a baseball team.”
One of the life lessons Wilburn has tried to teach the Eagles is one of their mottos: No Transfer Of Blame (No TOB). Crabtree said he used to be a player who blamed his shortcomings on outside circumstances like the sun being in his eyes or the umpire making a bad call.
Wilburn said he has not only seen his players adopt that motto on the field and in the dugout, but being a Physical Education (P.E.) teacher at Delta High School, he has seen some of his players embrace the lifestyle outside of baseball.
“We were out last week playing tennis and [one of my players is] playing tennis with a non-baseball player and the kid said something about ‘I would have done this’ and [my player is] like, ‘Hey no TOB,’” Wilburn said. “They kind of buy into it and hold each other accountable without being a jerk about it, just reminding them we're not blaming this on anybody else. Just getting them to believe in that stuff and buy into that stuff are things that I'm proud of this year, wins and losses aside.”
Along with his “No TOB” motto, Wilburn said he established two rules for the Eagles to follow in order to establish a culture for Delta Baseball. The first of which is “Be a great teammate” and the second is “Don’t be an idiot"... he feels the second rule is self-explanatory.
“Whether you're in the game or you're not in the game, your job is to be a great teammate,” Wilburn said. “If you're not in the game, you're gonna be a good cheerleader on the bench, you're going to be a guy that helps us with whatever, [whether that be] protecting guys when they were off in the bullpen, chasing foul balls, high-fiving guys coming off the field, helping us clean, everyone's got a job to do once we're done with games."
They just fight, they don't give up and [I’ve tried to] get them all to pull on the same side of the rope and teach them even if you go 0-3, if we still win the game it's a good day.”
Senior Parker Faletic said he has seen the Eagles come together to become a “tight-knit family” over the course of the season. He said he tries to take some of the freshmen under his wing, as does Crabtree.
“We got the whole JV team showing up to [varsity] baseball games and we got varsity players sitting behind the dugout or sitting in the dugout during JV games,” Faletic said. “I don’t know… it gives them a boost of confidence, maybe, to know that we're there supporting them, then they go out there and play hard.”
In the 2021 season, the Eagles finished with a 6-18 record and lost in the first round of sectionals. In the 2022 season, Delta is 8-16 with their semi-final sectional matchup set for May 27 against Guerin Catholic.
Crabtree has never won a sectional championship in his high school career. He said winning a sectional would be “awesome” and with his high school baseball career coming to an end sooner rather than later, he’s tried to enjoy the ride.
“Especially me being a senior, [it] kind of hits a little bit harder,” Crabtree said. “With only a couple of games left, just making the most of every moment and just living life at that point instead of focusing on the future or the past, just having a good time with my guys.”
Wilburn shared Crabtree’s thoughts on how he feels the Eagles should approach their sectional matchup against Guerin Catholic. Although he said he thinks this is a game Delta can win (he feels their 8-16 record is not indicative of the talent and heart of the Eagles), he wants his team to enjoy the moment.
“We're starting to get confident at the right time,” Wilburn said. “It took us a little bit of time, but I think our guys are starting to play better…our guys are starting to realize that we're a pretty good baseball team, right?
We're way better than seven [now eight] wins and that's why I don't hang my hat always on wins and losses. I'm gonna try to remind them to stay in the moment, don't let the moment outweigh the fun, and remember that it's a game, it's just another game.”
Faletic plans to go to Ball State to major in sports administration once he graduates from Delta High School. He has been with the baseball program for four years, but he also played football and basketball (who he won a sectional championship with during his sophomore year). He said he feels winning a sectional with the baseball program this season would be special.
“That'd be awesome because after the season we had last year and coming in with a new coaching staff and our record is still not insanely good…coming together as a team for one week and winning a sectional would be crazy,” Faletic said.
When outlining his goals as Delta Baseball head coach, championships were important to Wilburn, but not pre-dominant. He said he clearly wants to win every game and win championships, but he is more concerned with developing his roster into a plethora of great men.
Wilburn credited his personal trials and tribulations to the man he has become, the coach has become, the husband (to a wife, Maddie) he has become and the girl dad (of 10-month-old Tatum) he has become.
“It was a very, very dark time in my life when I gave [playing baseball] up because I worked my whole life to get where I was, I was a year away from my draft year, I felt like I was gonna get drafted, I was in the best physical shape of my life, and then, all of a sudden, it was just like one day I woke up and had really bad pain in my stomach and within a few months it was basically gone,” Wilburn said. “My personal relationship suffered and I went through a lot from that, and it kind of shaped a lot of who I am now."
My journey taking me over to Taylor and being at a Christian university...that’s kind of what saved me because that changed who I was a lot, just going through that because Taylor is an awesome place and it was the best time of my life being over there and I just kind of learned a lot about who I was about during that time and it kind of is what brought me back.”
It’s because of his personal experiences and what he’s taken from some of his greatest mentors that Wilburn strives to connect with the Eagles on a personal level and drive them to become men of character. Regardless of the outcome of their first sectional game against Guerin Catholic, Wilburn’s core goals will not change for the future Eagle teams he coaches.
He will always want to be invited to 1,000 weddings.
Contact Kyle Smedley with comments via email at email@example.com or on Twitter @smedley1932.