Matt Wallner was set to play his college baseball at North Dakota until budget cuts forced the program to be dropped after last season.
The lifelong Minnesotan ended up at a place he initially knew nothing about other than that it was a long way from home. A year later, Wallner is downright comfortable at Southern Mississippi.
His 15 home runs are most in the country by a freshman, he’s batting .335, and he’s an everyday starter in center or left field for the Conference USA regular-season champion Golden Eagles (41-12, 22-5). On Tuesday he accepted an invitation to attend this summer’s USA Baseball Collegiate National Team training camp.
“It’s hard to say it’s worked out for the best because I really liked North Dakota and the head coach, Jeff Dodson, is an unbelievable guy,” Wallner said. “Head coach Jeff still texts me to this day. He’s been supportive of the guys who were there. That’s really been cool. I’m very lucky to end up having it work out like it has after the fact. It definitely could have ended up a different direction.”
Other players who had signed with or played for North Dakota also have excelled. Jake Adams ended up at Iowa, starts at first base and leads the Big Ten with 21 homers and 59 RBIs. Pitchers Tony Grabowske and Trevor Kiminski are weekend starters for Stephen F. Austin. Miles Lewis, who batted a team-best .360 for North Dakota in 2016, starts in left field for Michigan and is batting .309 with team-best 14 doubles.
The 6-foot-5, 228-pound Wallner — “Big ‘un,” as he’s called by Southern Miss coach Scott Berry — could end up being the best of all of them. He’s a candidate for national freshman of the year because of his bat, but he also can be a dominate pitcher. Wallner’s fastball has been clocked at 97 mph, and he’s 2-0 with a 1.84 ERA and three saves. But he’s been limited to only eight appearances because of a hip issue.
Wallner said his early success offensively is attributable to adding muscle and overhauling his swing. In high school, he said, he relied too much on his upper body. He’s widened his stance and generates more power from his legs now.
“Everybody down here thinks he’s Paul Bunyan,” Berry said. “He walks with a big stick, I can tell you.”
North Dakota began recruiting Wallner out of Forest Lake (Minnesota) High School after he attended a camp in Grand Forks his junior year.
“When he took one swing at the plate, I immediately thought Will Clark,” said Dodson, who now works for North Dakota’s alumni association. “The ball jumped off his bat.”
Dodson projected him to play right field and have double-digit home runs in North Dakota’s hitter-friendly ballpark. But then word came on April 12, 2016, that the administration decided to cut the baseball and men’s golf programs to save money.
“It was devastating, honestly, to find out,” Wallner said. “I just didn’t know what I was going to do. The worst goes through your mind: ‘I might not be able to play anywhere.’ I felt for the coaches and players up there more than anything. That was probably the hardest part, talking to the coaches that night. They lost everything job-wise. They didn’t know what they were going to do, which is a worse situation than I was put in.”
When Berry heard about North Dakota dropping baseball, he had one of his assistants call to check on the availability of star left-handed pitcher Zach Muckenhirn. Dodson recommended the Golden Eagles try to recruit Wallner instead because Muckenhirn was only interested in going to a Southeastern Conference program. It turned out Muckenhirn was drafted in the 11th round last June and signed with Baltimore.
Before Southern Miss offered Wallner a scholarship, assistant Michael Federico was dispatched to Minnesota to scout him. The state’s 2016 high school player of the year hit a home run and touched 90 mph on Federico’s radar gun. Federico’s report, according to Berry: “The competition wasn’t great, but you could project him as being something pretty special.”
Wallner also looked at 2016 national champion Coastal Carolina, Kentucky and Creighton, but he was sold on Southern Miss right after his campus visit. It also didn’t hurt that his favorite major leaguer, Brian Dozier of the Twins, had played for the Golden Eagles.
The Twins drafted Wallner as a pitcher in the 32nd round last year. He said he wanted to hit, though, and he didn’t feel mature enough to enter pro ball.
Now, Wallner is a central figure for an explosive Southern Miss team that has won 11 straight games and tied the school record for regular-season wins.
“Obviously,” he said, “I’m glad I made that decision.”