Matt Wallner had quite the buzz surrounding him to begin his first season at Southern Miss.
As a freshman who had never played an inning of college baseball, the native of Forest Lake, Minnesota, made an immediate impression on his coaches and teammates during the first few practices in Hattiesburg.
Each ball the burly outfielder sent sailing out of Pete Taylor Park helped attract comparisons to some of the big names in the game.
“A left-handed Dale Murphy” was one such comparison dropped in reference to the 6-foot-5, 220-pound Wallner prior to the season opener.
Wallner met or exceeded any expectations thrown his way in Hattiesburg, setting new USM freshman records with 19 homers and 63 RBIs.
The honors have rolled in since the end of the regular season:
▪ Conference USA Freshman of the Year
▪ Baseball America second-team All-American
▪ National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association Freshman All-American
On Tuesday, Wallner has awarded his biggest honor yet.
He was named the NCBWA National Freshman Hitter of the Year, eclipsing Texas A&M’s Braden Shewmake, who was named SEC Freshman of the Year and Collegiate Baseball’s National Freshman of the Year.
St. John’s right-hander Sean Mooney (8-2, 1.71) was named the NCBWA National Freshman Pitcher of the Year.
Wallner, who batted .336 this season, set the bar extremely high for himself as a freshman, helping pace the Golden Eagles to a program mark in wins with a record of 50-16.
However, there’s little doubt that Wallner should only continue to improve as long as he stays healthy. He can cut back on his 50 strikeouts and improve on an already impressive batting average.
He’ll have a chance to sharpen his skills this summer at the USA Baseball Collegiate Team Training Camp in Cary, North Carolina.
Wallner was well on his way to also becoming one of the nation’s top freshman relief pitchers as well, but a sore hip mostly kept him off the mound over the final two months of the season.
He had a 2-0 record with a 1.84 ERA in nine appearances this season, hitting 97 miles per hour in one appearance at Trustmark Park in Pearl. His future is likely in the outfield, but a healthy Wallner would make the USM bullpen a lot tougher over the next two seasons.
A look at 2018
While a handful of Golden Eagles are likely to be selected before the MLB Draft comes to an end Wednesday, there’s little doubt that Wallner is the best pro prospect on the team.
USM head coach Scott Berry is thrilled to have Wallner around for two more seasons before he gets an early call in the 2019 MLB Draft.
If slugger Taylor Braley returns for his senior season at USM, the 2018 Golden Eagle lineup has a chance to rival the 2017 group that hit 90 homers and averaged 8.2 runs a game.
A pair of signees from Jones County Junior College, Erick Hoard and Fred Franklin, also have a chance to add more pop and speed to the USM lineup in 2018.
If Hoard and Franklin follow Mason Irby’s lead as a former JCJC standout at USM, the Golden Eagles will be in great shape. Irby batted .338 with 20 doubles, 40 RBIs and 62 runs scored as a junior in his first season at USM.
There’s plenty to shake out before USM opens the 2018 season with a three-game series against Mississippi State in Hattiesburg, but Wallner and company should give fans plenty to get excited about.