Patrick Magee

Backing up the buzz: USM’s Wallner impressive as freshman

Before Southern Miss freshman Matt Wallner played a game at Pete Taylor Park, the buzz surrounding the Minnesota native was hard to ignore.

He’s 6-foot-5, 220 pounds. Plays center field with good range and a strong arm. Hits for power and average.

On top of all that, he pitches with a fastball in the low 90s.

Those who saw him play during fall practice raved about him, building up a mythical standing before he’d even played an inning of baseball at USM.

Essentially, Wallner became Hattiesburg’s version of Paul Bunyan — a burly Midwesterner with larger-than-life expectations.

The new season always brings talk of new stars emerging, but many of those players fizzle on the Division I level.

So far, Wallner is doing just fine in his first season of college baseball.

He is batting .309 with four homers, 15 RBIs. On the mound, he’s made three crucial appearances out of the bullpen. In 9 2/3 innings, he is 2-0 with a save and a 0.00 ERA.

Long route to USM

Wallner wasn’t supposed to be at USM this season. He’d signed with the University of North Dakota before his senior season at Forest Lake (Minn.) High School.

Early in his senior campaign, he got word UND was shutting down its baseball program to cut costs.

It put him in a tough position, but it also gave him an opportunity to reopen his recruiting. When he committed to UND as a junior, he wasn’t pursued by top Division I programs.

By the time he was a senior, he had shown significant progress at the plate and as a pitcher. He’d packed on about 30 pounds and was throwing harder.

When word got out about the UND news, there were 10 scouts on hand to see his next start, according to The (St. Paul, Minn.) Pioneer Press.

USM pitching coach Michael Federico was among the coaches who made their way to Minnesota, which isn’t considered a baseball hotbed.

“He watched him pitch and watched him hit,” USM coach Scott Berry said. “He came back with a great evaluation of him.

“We definitely wanted him. He had a lot of upside.”

USM beat out schools such as Kentucky and Minnesota for Wallner, who chose to stick with Southern Miss even after being drafted by the Minnesota Twins in the 32nd round of the 2016 MLB Draft.

Minnesota to Mississippi

When Wallner got to USM, he made an instant impression on his coaches and teammates.

USM senior infielder Tracy Hadley, a Pascagoula native, was among those surprised to see a freshman as gifted as Wallner on the same roster.

“When he played in the first couple of (scrimmages), the first question that popped up in my head was, ‘Why is he here?’” Hadley said.

Wallner’s adjustment to Division I baseball is going as well as could have been expected, as he splits time between center field, designated hitter and pitcher.

In the field, he’s shown the ability to track down long drives.

“One of his steps is the equivalent of four of mine,” USM pitching ace Kirk McCarty quipped.

During last weekend’s sweep at Louisiana Tech, Wallner hit two homers and knocked in five runs. Out of the bullpen, he pitched three scoreless innings without giving up a hit to pick up the save in a 5-2 win on Friday.

He points to the USM staff for the early adjustment to Division I ball.

“There’s no doubt in my mind that it’s the coaches,” he said. “They gave me opportunities in the fall and just breaking me down from the basics.

“I just have a lot of confidence, trying to stay up the middle in my approach. The mental game has been the biggest improvement me.”

The toughest step for Wallner was simply adjusting to his teammates and living in the South.

“Well, he figured out how to listen and understand what we’re saying,” McCarty said. “That took him some time. I think it’s all good adjustments. I think he loves it here. He’s fitting right in and playing good baseball.”

When asked early in the season on how he was enjoying life in Hattiesburg, Wallner smiled and looked up to the sky.

“It’s hard to not like a day like today in February,” he said. “It’s been enjoyable nonetheless. It’s not been easy, but definitely good.”

Patrick Magee: 228-896-2333, @Patrick_Magee

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