Southern Miss

With Matt Wallner’s star on the rise, Southern Miss faces 2018 with target on its back

Southern Miss outfielder Matt Wallner connects against Illinois-Chicago on June 2, 2017, in Hattiesburg.
Southern Miss outfielder Matt Wallner connects against Illinois-Chicago on June 2, 2017, in Hattiesburg. Sun Herald file

When asked Thursday if he was the only Conference USA coach not to give Southern Miss a first-place vote in the league’s preseason poll, USM head coach Scott Berry answered with a shy grin and a laugh.

“I guess so,” the ninth-year head coach said.

USM received 11 of 12 votes to run away with the first-place spot in C-USA’s preseason picks and swept the individual honors with sophomore outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner named Player of the Year and junior closer Nick Sandlin selected as Pitcher of the Year.

Following a 50-16 season that included an NCAA Regional host site, it’s hard to imagine the USM baseball team having a bigger target on its back.

That’s just fine by Berry.

“The expectations at Southern Miss have always been great and that’s the way we want it,” he said. “That’s where the coaches voted us and it’s where we want to be as a program.”

USM will open the 2018 season on Feb. 16-18 against in-state rival Mississippi State at Pete Taylor Park in a series that’s inspired plenty of buzz in Hattiesburg.

A big reason that USM is considered such a heavy C-USA favorite is the growing status of Wallner as one of the best players in all of college baseball. The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Minnesotan was a consensus All-American following an outstanding freshman season that included a .336 batting average, 19 homers and 63 RBIs.

Once Berry wrapped up his question-and-answer session Thursday with a large media scrum in the Pete Taylor Park press box, Wallner was the only USM player who took a turn behind the row of microphones. All other USM players did one-on-one interviews with members of the media.

Wallner only has one season under his belt as a college baseball player, but he is quickly becoming the face of USM baseball and possibly the best pro prospect to take the field in C-USA since Washington Nationals infielder Anthony Rendon was playing third base at Rice.

While he played well beyond his years in 2017, Wallner believes he has a much better approach to the game as a sophomore.

“I think maturity is the biggest thing for me,” he said. “Last year, I prepared really hard, but I didn’t really know what to expect. It was awesome getting a hit on the first pitch I ever saw because I was basically shaking all over the box when I walked up there.

“I just think I’ve done it before. It’s not going to be easy because I’ll obviously get pitched differently and pitched around, but I think we have a lineup to help me and help us as a whole. It’s tough to pitch around us, one through nine.”

While there’s little doubt that he will produce with his bat, the main question is how much he can contribute to the pitching staff. He was 2-0 with a 1.84 ERA in nine relief appearances last year before a hip injury limited his opportunities in the second half of the season.

On Thursday, he deemed himself ready to go on the pitcher’s mound.

“I feel great,” Wallner said. “I’ve thrown three times now. I didn’t have any problems all fall. It was just a lot of maintenance work.

“I feel great. I’d play State tomorrow if they let me.”