Matt Wallner spent the first few weeks of his freshman year at Southern Mississippi sweating out the heat. The big outfielder/righthander had moved from his hometown of Forest Lake, Minn., to Hattiesburg, where each successive day felt like the hottest and most humid of his life.
By the spring, however, Wallner was making opponents sweat out games against Southern Miss. The freshman became the Golden Eagles' center fielder and a key cog in the heart of its lineup, hitting .346/.463/.655 with 19 home runs. He made nine appearances on the mound, going 2-0, 1.84 with three saves. Wallner helped the Golden Eagles to their most successful season since their 2009 College World Series run. They won 50 games, hosted a regional and won the Conference USA regular season title. For his spectacular season, Wallner is the 2017 Freshman of the Year.
Wallner was named the 2016 Gatorade high school player of the year in Minnesota and was drafted in the 32nd round by the Twins. Still, his easy transition to the college ranks was impressive.
"The biggest difference between high school ball and college ball is the mental aspect," Wallner said. "You're facing guys who will be drafted, every day. It's a lot more difficult, but you have to look at it as just another game. Staying even keeled I think by far helped me the most."
Wallner did not originally plan to play for Southern Miss. He first committed as a high school junior to North Dakota. But the university announced last April that it would eliminate baseball and men's golf following the school year. The move left all of the Fighting Hawks' players and recruits looking for new programs.
Southern Miss assistant coach Chad Caillet called North Dakota coach Jeff Dodson to inquire about lefthander Zach Muckenhirn, who was drafted by the Orioles in 2016. During that call, Dodson told Caillet about Wallner. Southern Miss head coach Scott Berry dispatched pitching coach Michael Federico to Minnesota, and soon Wallner took a visit to Hattiesburg and committed to Southern Miss.
It was the first time Berry and his staff had gone to Minnesota for a recruit, but the Golden Eagles have a connection to the Land of 10,000 Lakes through Twins second baseman Brian Dozier, who starred for Southern Miss' 2009 team. Dozier once introduced Berry to Joe Mauer, and Berry was reminded of the 2009 American League MVP when he first saw Wallner.
"The first time he walked around the corner to my office, I said, 'I don't know if you can play, but you pass the eye test, son,' " Berry said. "He was just built like a man as a high school senior."
The Twins drafted Wallner as a pitcher, and Southern Miss saw him as a two-way player. But Berry was primarily interested in adding Wallner's powerful lefthanded bat to the Golden Eagles' lineup. He wasted no time showing why.
Facing Northeastern on Opening Day, Wallner hit a double off the center-field wall on the first pitch he saw during his college career.
"That lifted a weight off my back, and I felt like I got moved into it with my first swing of the season," he said. "That was kind of relieving."
Wallner didn't slow down the rest of the season. He set the program's freshman records for home runs and RBIs (63). At the end of the season, he was invited to play for USA Baseball's Collegiate National Team, becoming just the second player in program history to be invited to Team USA.
Berry said he was most impressed this spring by the development of Wallner's approach at the plate.
"He wasn't getting himself out, he wasn't chasing stuff out of the zone," Berry said. "Even in intersquads he wasn't biting at stuff. I've got seniors who still chase. His discipline is still way ahead of his age."
While an improved mental approach at the plate was critical for Wallner's success, he also has spent a lot of time working with Caillet to refine his swing. In high school, he relied on his upper-body strength to hit, but he now better incorporates his lower half, which helped him tap into his power more.
"When I stay in my legs, I always hit better and drove the ball the opposite way a lot better than just kind of pulling off," Wallner said. "That's when I knew I had gotten back to my old swing, when I was using a lot of upper body. The biggest physical part was staying in my legs hitting."
Wallner said he still sees plenty of room for improvement, starting with staying healthy all season so that he can spend more time on the mound after a hip injury kept him from pitching much of the second half. But he knows he still has work to do as a hitter as well.
"Everyone has slumps during the year, but just staying more consistent (is my goal)," he said. "Hopefully, I will knock down the number of strikeouts and just hit the ball the other way a lot more, rather than pulling as much as I did a few times during the year."
|2017 Freshman All-Americans|
|2B||Brendan Shewmake||Texas A&M||.335||266||47||89||17||2||11||68||11|
|3B||Josh Jung||Texas Tech||.306||245||55||75||14||2||6||43||2|
|OF||Grant Little||Texas Tech||.335||206||52||69||17||3||2||34||6|
|OF||Matt Wallner||Southern Mississippi||.336||235||56||79||14||2||19||63||4|
|DH||Ashton McGee||North Carolina||.327||223||45||73||10||2||7||46||1|
|UT||Kevin Milam||St. Mary's||.313||214||45||67||14||0||12||55||0|
|SP||Gianluca Dalatri||North Carolina||7||3||3.34||15||0||97||90||19||85|
|SP||Shane McClanahan||South Florida||4||2||3.20||15||0||76||48||36||104|
|SP||Sean Mooney||St. John's||8||2||1.71||16||0||100||70||16||88|
|SP||Eric Walker||Louisiana State||8||1||3.46||16||0||94||81||23||78|
|RP||Josh Hiatt||North Carolina||4||2||1.90||32||13||52||31||20||64|
|UT||Kevin Milam||St. Mary's||3||1||2.27||22||9||40||27||11||31|
|1B||Drew Mendoza||Florida State||.263||137||30||36||9||0||8||31||3|
|OF||Spencer Brickhouse||East Carolina||.310||197||36||61||8||1||10||28||2|
|OF||Carlos Cortes||South Carolina||.286||168||27||48||9||1||12||41||5|
|OF||Zach Watson||Louisiana State||.313||195||37||61||8||3||8||35||10|
|DH||Brad Debo||North Carolina State||.335||215||30||72||18||2||4||43||0|
|UT||Rylan Thomas||Central Florida||.303||234||46||71||11||0||14||53||9|
|SP||Nick Lodolo||Texas Christian||5||1||4.28||15||0||74||70||27||69|
|RP||Jake Mulholland||Oregon State||6||1||1.31||27||6||48||34||11||41|
|RP||Riley Self||Mississippi State||5||2||3.72||31||8||48||44||20||60|
|UT||Rylan Thomas||Central Florida||1||0||0.00||7||0||8||3||4||10|