HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - The first time he stepped into a batter's box as a college baseball player, Matt Wallner drove the first pitch he saw from Northeastern University right-hander Mike Fitzgerald high-off the center-field wall at Taylor Park for a stand-up double.
"That was a pretty good feeling, to get that off my back," Wallner said.
That ringing, two-base hit with one out in the bottom of the second inning of the University of Southern Mississippi's season-opener on Feb. 16 served as harbinger to arguably the finest baseball season ever recorded by a freshman Golden Eagle.
The 6-foot-5, 220-pound Wallner never really stopped hitting after that, setting freshman records for home runs (19) and runs batted in (63). He appeared in all of USM's 66 games, starting 65, collecting at least one base hit in 75 percent of them and ranking second on the team with at least two hits in 26 games.
College baseball certainly noticed, the postseason accolades piling up like winter snowdrifts in his native Forest Lake, Minn., home.
Wallner not only was named Conference USA's Freshman of the Year, but the National Collegiate Baseball Writers Association's Freshman Hitter of the Year.
Wallner was named first-team Freshman All-America by NCBWA, Collegiate Baseball and Perfect Game/Rawlins
Wallner was named All-America period, regardless of class, by five organizations, including first team by NCBWA and Division I-Baseball.com; second team by Perfect Game/Rawlins and Baseball America; and third team by American Baseball Coaches Association/Rawlins
Perhaps, putting a capper on his season for the books, Wallner arrived back in the South Tuesday, heading to Cary, N.C., to play for the USA Baseball Collegiate Team.
Only one other Golden Eagle has ever been accorded that honor, when sidewinding pitcher Tony Phillips played for the national collegiate team 26 years ago.
"I know it's definitely a credit to everyone," Wallner said of the recognition. "I made a tremendous jump this year, but I definitely didn't do it alone. That's the furthest thing from the truth, that I did it alone. I've been fortunate to get those, but I can't let it get to my head or anything."
Southern Miss coach Scott Berry said that isn't likely.
"His maturity is way ahead of his age, and I think he is truly grateful for everything that has been given to him in the way of help, from before Southern Miss to now," Berry said. "He's a really good listener, and when you have somebody who is a listener, that's somebody who wants to learn. That's him.
"You have his attention when you're talking to him. It doesn't drift off somewhere else. A good listener is someone's who's very coachable."
All told, 34 players have made their way to USA Baseball's training camp for week-long practice and games against teams from the Coastal Plains and the Carolina-Virginia Collegiate league. A final, 24-man roster will be selected Monday.
Wallner is one of four freshmen already selected to a preliminary 28-man roster that will compete in a series against Chinese Taipei.
Ten players, including Mississippi State University sophomore pitcher Konnor Pilkington and University of Mississippi sophomore pitcher Dallas Woolfolk, already have been guaranteed spots on the final team that will play in an "international friendship series" against Cuba and Japan.
Camp invitees also include two players whose teams squared off this season with Southern Miss: University of South Alabama sophomore outfielder Travis Swaggerty and Florida Atlantic University sophomore infielder Tyler Frank.
"I'm really excited about it," Wallner said of competing for the USA Baseball team. "I'll give it my best, and see what happens. Hopefully, I make it. It'd be a great honor, but even if I don't, it's another step in the right direction, just being exposed."
Another step for a 19-year-old who earned Gatorade Player of the Year honors in Minnesota as much, if not more, for his prowess on the pitching mound as in the batter's box.
"Yeah, the last year out of high school, I was drafted as a pitcher, actually," said Wallner, who was taken by his favorite Major League Baseball team, the Minnesota Twins, in the 31st round of the 2016 amateur draft.
"I had a pretty good year hitting, but, yeah, I probably did pitch a little bit better in high school and all the way up."
Wallner wound up making seven pitching appearances for Southern Miss this season, picking up two wins and three saves before tightness in his hip limited him to one inning-plus over the final two months of the season.
"I noticed it at the Ole Miss game we were playing at Trustmark (Park on April 4)," Wallner said, "when I went on to pitch, and I couldn't push off all.
"My hip had been bugging me for like half the season, but that really only (affected) me from the pitching side. I just got used to it. I'll be fine again. It's just that it was really tight. It's no big deal, really."
It certainly did not seem to affect his smooth stroke and easy power at the plate, both of which first became hot topics during fall practice.
Still, Wallner said he wasn't quite sure what to expect coming into the spring.
"My goal, coming in was just hoping to get a chance to earn a spot in the lineup, let alone be an everyday starter," Wallner said. "I just hoped to get a chance, and was grateful when I saw my name on the lineup card the first game."
Wallner's name stayed there as fixture in center field, where he committed just two errors, and the middle of the Golden Eagles' batting order, where he hit .336, with a .463 on-base percentage and a .655 slugging percentage.
Wallner's play helped the Golden Eagles record the first 50-win season in school history, clinch only the second outright C-USA regular-season championship in program history and bring an NCAA Regional to Taylor Park for just the second time as well.
The season ended on a disappointing note, when the Golden Eagles dropped back-to-back games to Mississippi State on a stormy June Monday to fall short of a Super Regional appearance and a chance to play for a spot in the College World Series.
"I didn't expect all this of course, and as a team, it would be hard to have a much better regular-season than we had," Wallner said. "Hopefully, we can go farther, but as far as the regular season, it was about as good as you could hope for. We thought we could have lined up with anyone, but everything went wrong that could have (in the regional finals)."
Wallner credited his teammates and coaches with helping adjust to his first season of college baseball.
"I think I had faced three guys (throwing) over 90 (miles per hour) in my life, so it's a huge, different ballgame," Wallner said. "But everybody just helped me slow my mind down and try not to let the game just eat me up. That really was the key to success. The adjustment, it looked big, but the guys on the team, and the coaching, it made it tremendously better and easier for me, just to help me out.
"It was definitely the most fun I've ever had playing baseball, for so many different reasons. Just on the whole, guys like (team leaders Taylor) Braley and (Dylan) Burdeaux, they just made it such a fun team, and at the same time, such a competitive team."
Berry said while Wallner's natural talents were certainly on display, the freshman's approach to the game were just as important to his success.
"Right out of the gate, he's so physical and big to where his body can handle the everyday grind," Berry said. "But what's amazing, what people don't really look at, is the mental grind of a freshman hitting in the four hole or the five hole, depending on whether it's a righty or a lefty, and being able to produce like he did, pretty much all year long. That's pretty remarkable.
After the season, Wallner returned home for a few weeks.
"I was so tired," Wallner said, laughing. "I've just been relaxing, taking advantage of every second of it."
Or at least trying to.
"I just can't do it," Wallner said, laughing again. "I try to. I really do try to tell myself that I am."
And that stab at rest came to an end this week, as Wallner dons the spikes and picks up the bat for at least another few weeks.
Berry said he has no doubt that Wallner will continue with his success.
"All really good players have this characteristic: they play at an even keel," Berry said. "They aren't too high and they're never too low. They learn to play the game consistently and constant at one level. It doesn't ride at a high wave or a low wave. That's the makeup when you look at those guys, and that's him."
Berry said Wallner's approach is similar to another former Golden Eagle baseball great, Brian Dozier, who now stars for Wallner's home team, the Twins.
"Dozier was like that," Berry said. "Dozier could go 0-4, and it was like, 'It'll be all right, coach,' or we could lose, and time and time again, he would be the one that would say, 'Hey, we'll get them tomorrow, coach.' So, those kind of guys, who have the ability to maintain that even keel through their play, good or bad, they're the ones at the end of the day who seem to play the game the longest."
As Wallner's longest _and arguably, brightest _ year of baseball winds down, he said he was looking forward to helping the Golden Eagles keep building a brighter future.
"It's something I loved to be a part of, and hope to build on for next year, and I know we will," he said.