Minnesota to Mississippi
Its a long way from Forest Lake, MN to Hattiesburg, MS. Roughly 1,119 highway miles give or take a detour along the way. Factor in that the Upper Midwest has not been a traditional recruiting ground for Southern Miss and you can't help but wonder how 2016's Mr. Baseball in Minnesota - Matt Wallner, ended up at Southern Miss.
Southern Miss assistant baseball coach Chad Calliet sits down with BigGoldNation.com to talk about how the Eagles landed what could be the sleeper of the entire 2016 baseball signing class.....nationally.
North Dakota's loss is Southern Miss' Gain
Wallner was an early commitment and signee to North Dakota and head coach Jeff Dodson.
In mid-April of 2016, North Dakota announced that they were dropping baseball. This began the chain of events that eventually led Wallner to Hattiesburg.
When the news broke of UND's decision to drop baseball, programs from around the nation began calling Jeff Dodson to inquire about his roster.
Calliet also made a call to Dodson but his was a bit different. Calliet was calling as a friend to inquire about the well begin of Dodson and his famly.
Calliet and Dodson have a long standing relations that goes back to Meridian CC. Dodson was on the staff at West Alabama, in Livingston just across the state line from Meridian during the time Calliet served as the head coach at MCC. Dodson regularly recruited players from MCC and the two struck up a friendship.
"When I caught wind that the baseball program at North Dakota was going to be dropped, I called as a friend," Calliet said. "Just to see how he was doing and to reach out."
Dodson, who was moving to a position with the Alumni Association at UND, was looking for homes for his players.
"He was very up-beat," Calliet said of Dodson. "He was really motivated to find places for his guys. He was telling me about some guys on his team but he kept mentioning a signee - "Matt Wallner". He felt like he was going to be a big piece for his program and that was going to be a steal for someone."
Dodson encouraged Calliet to reach out to Wallner and to get on a plane and come to Minnesota to see him play.
From that point Southern Miss was racing against the clock as well as a number of other programs who set their sites on the talented two way player who was beginning to show some of the big upside that Jeff Dodson had seen before anyone else.
"It happened so fast," Calliet said of the first contacts with Wallner and his family. "Jeff praised the kid as a person on and off the field. This recruiting happened so fast and you try to find out as much as you can in short period of time."
At the time Southern Miss really didn't have room for a position player, especially an outfielder, they needed pitching.
There was little doubt that Wallner could hit, but he wasn't as developed on the mound.
"Literally two days later," Calliet said. "Because once the program got dropped a lot of schools started calling University of Minnesota, Coastal Carolina, Illinois, Indiana and the list goes on. We had to act quickly, we got on the phone with his high school coach and they were playing two days later. We got on the flight and thought Coach Berry was gonna kill us for booking a flight that quickly to Minnesota."
Calliet and pitching coach Michael Federico watched him pitch and hit one game and then made the move to bring him to Hattiesburg for an official visit.
"We had him on campus that next Saturday," Calliet said. "It was such a quick process, but he and his father came and we showed them our program, this culture and our environment and he fell in love with it.
The Minnesota Twins had also found Wallner, but they gambled that they may be the only ones and selected him in the 30th round of the MLB Draft, not nearly high enough for the talented prospect to pass up college.
The Road Less Traveled
To his credit Jeff Dodson had seen something early in Wallner that initially eluded coaches from across the Big Ten.
When Dodson committed him, Wallner was a gangling 6-foot-4, 185-pounder, not the 6-foot-5+, 235-pounder that would pass the eyeball test for even the most novice of baseball talent scouts.
In some ways Wallner took the road less traveled to major college baseball.
"North Dakota committed him early," Calliet said. "He never really got into the whole select ball with like Perfect Game that you see down in the South."
"He played with his high school group in (American) Legion Baseball and he pretty much focused on that group," he continued. He did a couple of PBR (Prep Baseball Report) events that are popular up north, but that was about it."
Dodson and UND did a great job recruiting and selling Wallner on their program early and he never went fishing for other offers.
Molding The Clay:
When Wallner arrived on the Hattiesburg campus in the Fall of 2016 he had already began to fill out.
We asked Calliet at what point did Wallner's potential begin to show itself?
"There was no question from the first day it was fun,"Calliet said of working with Wallner. "It was a big mold of clay. You knew you had something special in front of you, but it was not at all polished yet."
Wallner begin to improve each day and learn more and more about the game of baseball.
"It was and is such a joy to work with him," Calliet said. "You just saw the clay molding into something very special. And even now everytime we come back home you just know he is getting it."
Heading into the season the coaches were confident in what Wallner could do physically both as a hitter and on the pitching side, but how would he react to the big jump in competition and playing before thousands of fans.
"That was the biggest question mark coming out of fall," Calliet said. "We kept saying, 'this guy has a chance to be a super-star but what is he going to do when the lights come on?'. For a lot of kids that's difficult, especially for a kid from Minnesota who's never played in front of 3,000 people or maybe not even 300 people. That was my biggest question mark, how was he gonna respond to 3500 screaming Cajuns down in Lafayette?."
In short the moment, at least to this point, has not been too big for Matt Wallner and he has handled each situation well.
He has started 19 of Southern Miss' 20 games in the 2017 season. He is hitting .309 through the first third of the season. His four home-runs are tied for 3rd most on the team and is forth on the team in RBI's with 15. He has also stolen a few bases and played near flawlessly in center field.
But, what may be even more impressive is how he has produced on the mound for the Eagles.
Wallner is currently 2-0 with one save on the mound in three appearances. In 9.2 innings of work he has yet to give up a run. He has struck out 11 while walking only 2. Opposing batters are hitting a paltry .096 against him and he has yet to give up an extra base hit.
Wallner is a power pitcher in every sense of the word. Although is stride and delivery seem almost effortless his big, powerful frame is producing fastballs not often seen on the collegiate level. Wallner has consistently been clocked at 93-95 on his fastball and has bumped 96 on occasion. He is continuing to develop a curve but a change-up that comes in 15 mph less than his fastball has been an out pitch for him early in his Eagle career.
It is not outside of the realm of possibility that he could be throwing 100 mph before leaving Southern Miss.
Stay locked on BigGoldNation.com for complete coverage of Southern Miss baseball.
Lanny Mixon can be reached at BigGoldNation@yahoo.com and he can be heard each Mon-Thurs on the Pine Belt Sports Drive at 5:00 PM CST on NewsRadio98.1 WMXI-FM in Laurel/Hattiesburg.