When a college baseball squad loses the conference’s pitcher of the year and player of the year from the season prior, it’s fair to expect that the new campaign could turn into a rebuilding project.
Under those circumstances at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles are considered favorites to win their third consecutive Conference USA regular season title.
Pitching ace Nick Sandlin (Indians) and sweet-swinging third baseman Luke Reynolds (Cubs) were both lost to the MLB Draft in June and it will be nearly impossible to replace their production, but plenty of key pieces return to make 2019 potentially another special season.
No returning Golden Eagle is more important than junior outfielder/pitcher Matt Wallner, who earned All-American status in both his freshman and sophomore seasons. He’s also projected as a potential first-round selection in this year’s MLB Draft.
It will be hard for Wallner to top what he’s done up to this point with 35 homers and 130 RBIs in 128 career games, but USM coach Scott Berry plans to give the Minnesota native more of a chance this year to show what he’s capable of on the pitcher’s mound.
Wallner had a standout season out of the bullpen as a freshman with a 1.84 ERA in 14 2/3 innings, but that number jumped to 7.98 in the same amount of innings a year ago.
In 2019, Wallner appears set to make a full-time move to the starting rotation after getting most of his work in relief the last two years.
“I don’t know if it’s going to be weekend or mid-week,” Berry said during Wednesday’s media day. “That starting rotation is a little bit of a question mark. Hopefully he’s healthy. Last year, he kind of broke down a little bit from the freshman year.
“We were afraid to throw him in bullpens (last year) because of the hip he injured. We didn’t want to take away from his abilities in the outfield, with the bat. We were a little hesitant to use him and work with him in the pen like we needed. This year, he and (pitching coach Christian Ostrander) were able to do a lot of pen sessions. He worked on a split finger to help with that slider and fastball. We saw a lot of positive things.”
After being limited on the mound in the second half of his freshman season with a hip injury and the USM staff taking a cautious approach with Wallner a year ago, the 6-foot-4 junior appears to be in good shape to have his best season yet as a pitcher.
“I feel really good right now,” he said. “I think I’m at the right weight for me (229 pounds). I’ve worked on my flexibility a lot and just tried to be meticulous about stuff. I feel 100 percent. I wish we were playing tomorrow.”
Wallner is part of a pitching staff that will be one of the most experienced groups that USM has ever had, including two weekend starters from a year ago in Stevie Powers (5-2, 4.07) and Walker Powell (7-3, 3.80). Four other right-handers also provide starting experience in senior Mason Strickland, senior Jarod Wright, junior Alex Nelms and junior Cody Carroll.
Berry will also have experienced options to call on in the bullpen and senior right-hander J.C. Keys will be given a chance to handle closer duties after working previously as a starter and middle-relief option.
In the field, USM returns five starters:
Catcher — senior Cole Donaldson.
Second base — junior Matthew Guidry.
First base — senior Hunter Slater.
Left field — sophomore Gabe Montenegro.
Right field — Wallner.
Two positions that don’t return starters appear to be somewhat settled with freshman Danny Lynch, the brother of former Golden Eagle Tim Lynch, stepping up to take over at third baseman, and senior speedster Fred Franklin on pace to start in center field.
There’s a little more uncertainty at shortstop with senior Storme Cooper apparently holding a slight edge on redshirt freshman Will McGillis, the son of former USM athletic director Bill McGillis.
“Storme Cooper had a really good fall for us,” Berry said. “He’s much like a Nick Dawson, who we had back in 2016 that was a really steady player. He didn’t make the great plays, but he made the routine plays. That’s what we ask from that position up the middle. Storme played a really good shortstop this fall. Will McGillis is another guy that could see some action there. Those are our two candidates at shortstop.”
Senior slugger Erick Hoard should get plenty of opportunities at designated hitter. Freshman Hunter LeBlanc, who received praise from Berry Wednesday, could also factor in at DH and in center field.
With so much playing experience throughout the lineup and pitching staff, USM hopes 2019 will provide the program’s first Super Regional bid since the 2009 run to the College World Series.
Last year’s 10-2 trouncing by Arkansas and 9-4 defeat to Dallas Baptist in the Fayetteville Regional left the Golden Eagles with a disappointing finish to the 2018 campaign, ending USM’s season in the first-round of the postseason for the third consecutive year.
“Facing Arkansas, that was probably the first time I’ve been here that we really got beat by a team,” Wallner said. “I think they just played a lot better than we did that day. They exposed us from taking first to third and just stuff like that. They out-hit us, out-pitched us and just outplayed us. That’s something we need to take a look at going forward. We can be that team, but we weren’t last year. Having more depth this year, will help us be that team. I think as a team we are a little bit more mature and experienced. Having seen that is motivation going forward for sure.”
USM opens the season on Feb. 15 in Hattiesburg with a three-game series against Purdue.