HATTIESBURG – Matt Wallner, Southern Miss’s multi-talented preseason All American, has never considered himself an emotional guy.
“Far from it, actually,” he said late Sunday afternoon, after he and his Golden Eagle teammates had finished a three-game sweep of Mississippi State with a 5-2 victory.
Besides that, these intra-state rivalries that consume so many Mississippians are more or less lost on Wallner, who hails from Forest Lake, Minn.
But when his 94 mph fastball zipped past Josh Hatcher’s swinging bat for the last out Sunday, Wallner leaped his 6 feet, 5 inches and 220 pounds into the air and shouted, “Yeah!”
It surprised his teammates. It surprised even him.
“I never do that,” Wallner would later say, somewhat sheepishly.
So why now?
“This was awesome, as good as it gets,” he said.
For three games, Southern Miss out-scored Mississippi State 23-6 and out-hit the Bulldogs 29-21. The Golden Eagles also out-fielded, out-ran and out-pitched State.
Said State coach Andy Cannizaro, whose father once played for USM, “This was a rough weekend for us, to say the least, and a lot of it has to do with how good Southern Miss is. They are a mature, veteran team with outstanding, gigantic athletes, and we’re not there yet.”
Which brings up the question: What does State need to do to get there?
Cannizaro chuckled. “We need to hit, pitch and defend better,” he said. “That pretty much covers it.”
But let’s get back to Wallner, who as a freshman last spring helped the Golden Eagles to a school-record 50-victory season and the right to host a regional. And then, State came to Hattiesburg and won that regional, beating USM 8-1 and 8-6 in the championship round to end the season.
Several Golden Eagles talked about how that ending was such a sickening punch in the gut. Indeed, some said they will never forget the feeling.
Wallner wasn’t one.
“I didn’t dwell on it,” Wallner said. “I didn’t think about it much at all.”
And then Friday afternoon he saw the Mississippi State team bus pull into the Pete Taylor Park parking lot, and, he said, “It all came back to me.”
“I really, really wanted to win this series,” he said. “We all did.”
Besides saving the game on the mound, Wallner also made two circus catches – one to end State’s fifth inning and the other to end the seventh. Both were spectacular but the latter was the most important. USM led 5-2 and State had runners at first and second with dangerous Hunter Vansau at the plate. Vansau ripped Cody Carroll’s pitch into left center for what looked like an extra base hit that would have scored one, maybe two. But Wallner sprinted into the gap, stretched out his long body, dove and snagged the ball.
“He’s an amazing athlete,” Cannizaro said. “He made those great catches and then he closed the game.”
The hitting hero again was Luke Reynolds, the former Bulldog from Forest, who hit a single, a double, scored a run and drove home two more. For the weekend, Reynolds was six for 10 at the plate, with two doubles, a home run, six runs scored, five more batted in and a stolen base to boot.
Listen: Reynolds was personally responsible for 11 USM runs on the weekend. State scored six.
“I enjoyed every single minute of it,” Reynolds said. “It was just awesome. … I said yesterday that sweeping them today would be the cherry on top and it was.”
There’s always a danger in baseball of reading too much into one game or even one series. These were three games. USM is scheduled to play 55, State 56. The worm will have plenty of chances to turn. USM coach Scott Berry believes it will turn for State.
“They are a new team with a lot of new players,” Berry said of the Bulldogs. “They have a lot of ability over there. They have plenty of ability to put it together. They just have to find the right combination.”
Currently, the Golden Eagles have no such issue.