USM’s Wallner Larger Than Life
HATTIESBURG, Miss. – Southern fans love their larger-than-life heroes. On cue, here comes this strapping young man from some far-away locale that proceeds to do all of these superhuman feats. Part Paul Bunyan, part Brett Favre, Matt Wallner has captured the attention and perhaps more importantly the imagination of the Southern Mississippi diamond enthusiasts.
“He took a one-handed swing and propelled the ball off the Corner Market sign on the left-center field wall,” said one observer.
“In an early fall scrimmage, he hit a ball over the right field wall 340 sign, past the pines and about halfway up that fence over there that separates the outfield terrace from the St. Thomas Church. I’d estimate it at 420 feet,” said another. “He smoked a line drive over the fence at Louisiana Tech that looked like it was still rising when it left the park.”
Players like this can elevate the program. Stories like these can energize a fan base.
But this isn’t just the home folks talking. Others without Hattiesburg addresses have been privy to testify these tall tales are legitimate occurrences, no matter how they may seem to the uninitiated.
“He is an absolute beast,” said Mississippi State head coach Andy Cannizaro who faced Southern Miss last week. “He looks like Russell Branyon in the box; plus power and a solid runner. Played center field and closed against us at 94-97 (mph) with a plus breaking ball.”
Southern Miss head coach Scott Berry even admits to being taken a back a bit by this massive kid from Minnesota swinging an ax … or is it a bat?
“I remember the first time I saw him when he walked into our building I was like, ‘yeah, this is what I like’,” said Berry.
With all of this attention, the natural concern is that the fanfare could go to the kid’s head and jeopardize his growth as player and more importantly, altering who he is as a person.
“He is handling it well,” said Berry. “I have been doing this 33, 34 years. There comes a point for everyone where baseball will humble you. It is going to happen. You are going to struggle. As long as you are able to learn from your struggles you will be better for it. Those days are ahead for him but right now, he is in a zone.
“What keeps him where he is right now is that he very humble,” Berry added.
Wallner was humbled a bit last Friday as he had his first bad outing on the mound in a loss to Marshall. Keep in mind that at the plate, he hit three homers in a doubleheader so he more than carried his weight. However, when he entered as a reliever in game two he gave up three hits, two walks and was tagged with four runs (three earned) in a four out stint.
All anyone could talk about afterwards was his verbal jousting with the home plate umpire. Observers relayed there were some close calls that did not go his way and he was demonstrably upset on the mound. This was a new visual to the home fans that had only seen the level-headed version of their heralded freshman. Wallner knows he needs to avoid those situations going forward. Unsolicited, he offered this critique of his prior game.
“Honestly, I was too much in my head on Friday,” Wallner said later that weekend. “I got a little jacked up. I usually keep my cool pretty good and that is something I will keep working on.”
A little over a year ago, Wallner was devastated. Here he was, just beginning his senior season at Forest Lake High (MN) and the college he had signed to play for, North Dakota, was ending its baseball program.
“Life throws you a curve ball sometimes,” Wallner said. “I was lucky that I was able to push through it. I really did have a lot of pressure on me. Senior year and now I don’t know where I am going. But I was able to battle through it.”
College baseball is a sport where prep sophomores are often the ones being recruited. Now, here was Wallner, a high school senior suddenly without a baseball destination for 2017. This was especially difficult since he had such a challenging time being recruited before he signed with North Dakota, who had been his only real suitor.
Now their program was gone and his career was thrown for a loop before it even started.
In stepped then North Dakota head coach Jeff Dodson who felt an obligation to do whatever he could to help his incoming recruit. After all, he and Wallner’s family had grown a bond during the recruiting process.
“Their son committed to me and there was a trust factor there,” Dodson told D1Baseball.com. “I had to send him somewhere with people that I trust and also where he could be a great fit.”
Dodson earned that trust over a couple of years where North Dakota was really the only program pursuing Wallner.
Fortunately, programs are always looking for talent; especially if the talent is 6-foot-5, 220 pounds and a two-way player.
The sport is also not just about balls and strikes. People build relationships and often times those friendships shape the future for unsuspecting athletes.
Wallner is now at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg, Miss. That is 1120 miles away, or a 17 hour drive from his home just north of Minneapolis.
But how in the world did that happen?
Getting to Hattiesburg
“I told Chad Caillet that if he or Federico came to Minnesota and didn’t like Wallner I would pay for the trip. But if he did like him he owed me fifty pounds of mudbugs. Now Wallner is mid-90s and I still haven’t seen my mudbugs,” Dodson said with a laugh.
Dodson both pitched and then became an assistant at Livingston (Ala.) University. During his time there, three Southern Miss coaches – Berry, recruiting coordinator Chad Caillet, and pitching coach Michael Federico were on staff at nearby Meridian (Miss.) Community College. Those were connections that would eventually benefit Wallner as well as Southern Miss.
What if Dodson didn’t hit it off with the USM staff when they were junior college coaches? What if they had lost touch over the years? It is safe to say Wallner would be terrorizing scouting reports for some other program instead of generating buzz in Hattiesburg.
“I have known the Southern Miss coaches from when they were at Meridian,” Dodson said. “I was thirty minutes away at Livingston and we spent a lot of time there recruiting when Mark Hogan was the coach and I was a graduate assistant for him. We just kind of clicked and stayed in contact over the years. When you find out what a coach is about ethically and also what his program is about, you get a good gauge on him.”
Berry was aware of North Dakota’s program closing back during the spring. Dodson had taken his team to play against Alabama, a common opponent with Southern Miss.
“When Alabama was here, (then Alabama coach) Mitch Gaspard was talking about opponents they had played, he talked about a left handed pitcher (Zach Muckenhirn) that Jeff had up there at North Dakota,” said Berry. “He said, ‘boy, I will take a whole staff of guys like him’. When it was announced later in the spring that they were dropping their program and wouldn’t field a team for ’17, as a coach you start thinking, what about that lefty? I don’t know what year he is but let’s try to get in there. Maybe because he is at North Dakota, he could go unnoticed. But he didn’t. Jeff was upfront that (Muckenhirn) had a lot of interest or could go pro (He was eventually an 11th-round pick by the Orioles). But he said the guy you need to get is a kid I have signed out of Minneapolis named Matt Wallner. That is the one y’all need to get in on.”
That is where the mudbug conversation comes into play.
“Fed our pitching coach went up there and watched him play, watched him pitch, saw him hit a home run,” Berry said. “He came back and said, ‘he is physical. He is what you want. He is 90 on the mound. I think we need to try to get this guy’.”
They offered and although there was no shortage of late-arriving suitors, including the Twins, who selected Wallner in the 32nd round, the Minnesota native signed as a Golden Eagle and came to school last fall.
“He is a tremendous talent,” said Caillet. “I am very grateful to Jeff to passing his name on to me.”
Now what about those crawfish Dodson bargained for?
“I have known Jeff a long time and he is always wanting crawfish,” Caillet said. “I told him to come to Hattiesburg and see Wallner play. We will have plenty of crawfish for him.”
Before Southern Miss, the Twins and several other baseball entities were chasing Wallner, there was really just North Dakota. Wallner was a tall kid but lacked the physicality he has today. The tools were there though and he caught the eye of North Dakota assistant Brian DeVillers.
“My assistant coach (DeVillers) invited him to a camp in the fall of his junior year,” Dodson explained. “When he got to camp, he stands out because of his height. He took one swing and the first thing I thought about was, ‘Will Clark’. I turned and looked at my assistant coach and said, ‘you sign this kid right now. I want this kid in our program’. I was worried about what kind of angle we were going to use to sign the kid but nobody was on him. My assistant told me, ‘no one is talking to him’. I said, ‘I don’t care. I love him’. Sure enough, he was interested in us.”
How does a 6-foot-5 player with a sweet lefthanded “Will Clark swing” slip through without the bigger programs noticing?
“I think the biggest thing is projection has a lot to do with it,” said Dodson. “One reason mid-major programs get good kids is that some of the bigger schools want the ‘right now’ guy. They don’t want to worry about projecting the growth of the guy. He was just 6’5”, 180 (pounds). You could tell that the ball initially came off his bat but it didn’t carry well. But you could visualize, and when you have done this for a long time, you kind of get the feel for the athleticism. One thing that was intriguing about him, he was a really good basketball player too. I gravitate toward two-sport guys. I told (Coach DeVillers), ‘if we don’t sign this guy now, we are never going to see him again’. We worked really, really hard to get him.”
They got him and had visions of him competing for an outfield spot along with getting a chance on the mound. The pitching side of his game was raw but intriguing.
“He was going to come in initially for us as a backside guy and throw out of our bullpen,” Dodson said. “He was 83, 84 (mph) from the outfield when he threw for our tryouts. When he jumped on the mound, he went to 84, 85. A lot of position guys, they throw 90 from the infield and throw 82 on the mound. He went the opposite way so I knew there were things that translated with his delivery to allow for his velocity to jump. I was kind of projecting him as a freshman to be upper 80s. But as the year went on with his development, the guy was putting on weight and his velocity just kept creeping up. We got some reports of him hitting some 94s in high school. I thought, ‘Oh crap, we are not going to see this guy’.”
“As it turned out, we didn’t see him anyway.”
Wallner was all set to join Dodson and DeVillers at North Dakota. Fate had other plans for him and now he is one of the top freshmen in the country for a top 25 squad.
“I really liked the school,” Wallner said of North Dakota. “At that point I wanted to stay closer to home. The coaches were awesome.
“I heard the news (program shuttered) after my first high school game. I was devastated really. I had to talk to the coaches and the players; that was awful to hear what they were going through. Coach Dodson, he knew Caillet and Fed, he got me the contact here. I am very thankful it worked out as well as it could have.”
Do you want to know how nice a kid Matt Wallner is?
“The biggest change for me has been saying ‘yes sir, yes ma’am, no sir, and no ma’am” said Wallner. “I never grew up saying that. It is something different that the people here don’t even have to think about but I have to think about it every time.”
Yes sir, his biggest adjustment to life in the south has not been the heat, or the accent, or even local cuisine like mudbugs. No, the challenge has been altering his politeness to account for his new surroundings. That is a testament to his manners, but also to the manner in which he was raised.
“His dad and mom, John and Maggie, they are awesome,” said Dodson. “He is just a wonderful kid. Going through the process as a young coach when I was down at Livingston, an old Dodgers scout told me that ‘if a kid doesn’t look you in the eye and doesn’t give you a good handshake, don’t sign him’. I have stuck with that. That is one thing I vividly remember about Matt. He would make eye contact with you and you could just tell he had character and charisma. He is just a very polite young man. He was raised well by his family. He is going to be a good person long after baseball is done.”
“I have been very blessed,” Wallner said of his family. “My grandma is here this weekend and my dad has been down quite a bit. They have always supported me, throwing with me; that is the reason I am here. And Coach Dodson, he has supported me and still keeps in touch. I wouldn’t be here without him either.”
Wallner smiles as he talks about his family, something he avoided when we spoke about his on-the-field exploits. Wallner, who made the fall semester Athletic Director’s Honor Roll, has the presence of an older player, yet he is a freshman.
“I didn’t know what he was on the field but you could envision what the ceiling is,” said Berry. “Honestly, he has come in with the presence that is much older than his age. He is very mature. He is a great student. He is very polite. There is not a flaw in him. I think his baseball development has continued here. Obviously, success breeds that. But I think it starts with the individual himself. He has worked hard and is committed to being a very good player.”
“His desire is not to be good but great, he is a special once in a lifetime type kid,” said Dodson.
Wallner is a freshman in a strange place adjusting to the scholastic demands of college. He is also splitting time playing all three outfield positions and pitching. That kind of schedule requires some time management. How does Wallner deal with his daily calendar?
“I just get to the field early and make sure I get my swings in,” Wallner said. “Sometimes when the outfielders are hitting I am with the pitchers so I have to hit when I can. I just try to play for the team. The teammates are the biggest reason for my success. They are always giving me pointers. I am still am a freshman so I am learning from everyone. Even the guys that are not in the lineup, they know more than me. I am just being a young guy here listening with my ears open.”
His approach is working. Through 25 games, Wallner is batting .329/.467/.612 with seven home runs and 20 RBIs. He has also walked 18 times. In six appearances on the mound he is 2-0 with a 2.08 ERA with three saves in 13 innings. Opponents are batting just .133 against him.
“Just a phenomenal job by recruiting coordinator Chad Caillet in finding Wallner and bringing him down to Hattiesburg,” said Cannizaro. “It is as great of a two-way player as you can find in college baseball. He is a middle of the order bat, center fielder, and a closer up to high 90s.”
So why has he been so successful so early in his career?
“He is just a calming presence,” said Berry. “He does not get sped up. When I say he is ahead of his age, he performs like an upperclassman. He can slow the game down. We didn’t pitch him a whole lot in the fall but it was evident coming out of the fall we were going to have to have a little more depth. We knew he had a big arm. But it has gotten a little bigger than what we thought in all honesty. Hats off to him for how he has competed and got himself to be an impact player in our lineup.”
Just like in the camp at North Dakota where he was discovered, Wallner keeps exceeding expectations. That kind of two-way impact, especially from a freshman, has people wondering where his future is a professional.
“At this point I really don’t know,” said Berry. “They said the other night at Pearl he touched 97 (mph). I think that might have been a little hot gun. But I know he has touched 95 several times with tilt with a nasty slider. He is fun to watch. He is explosive on the mound. He is so strong at the plate that he can mishit balls and they carry. He hits popups that keep going. I think our coaches Fed, (B.A.) Vollmuth, and Caillet have done an incredible job grooming him into what he is today but him being a student, he has been very attentive and is coachable. I think that has been a real plus in the situation.”
As for Wallner himself, he doesn’t want to rush any decisions. He would prefer to just let the future run its course.
“I would like to let it work its way out.” Wallner said. “I enjoy doing both right now. Doing my best and see what happens.”
If the past has been any indication for the youngster from Minnesota, that is sage advice. A year ago, he would have never envisioned himself in Mississippi. Who knows what will transpire before he reaches draft-eligible status in 2019?
In the meantime, Wallner will keep being a nice guy off the field and a terror on it, spinning stories that the locals will tell (and probably embellish) for generations.
That is the way it is done down south. Yes sir, Wallner is going to be just fine at Southern Miss.