There’s not a single head college baseball coach in the country who wants to see another program shut down. Frankly, it’d be hard to find anyone, besides maybe a spiteful rival, who would like to see a team of college baseball players displaced, coaches lose their jobs and a fan base not have a baseball program to root for anymore.
Southern Miss coaches Scott Berry and Chad Caillet would have liked to see their friend, Jeff Dodson, keep his program, but when the University of North Dakota baseball program was discontinued after the 2016 season, it set off a domino effect that allowed the Golden Eagles to get a future All-American and find two more pieces to their team.
The Minnesota recruiting pipeline was formed, and it wouldn’t have happened without the unfortunate closing of the UND baseball program.
“That is definitely crazy to think about,” Southern Miss junior and Minnesota native Matt Wallner said.
By now, the story of how Wallner arrived at Southern Miss has been told. Dodson told Caillet about a special left-handed recruit he had from Forest Lake, Minnesota, who could hit bombs and throw 90 miles per hour. Getting Wallner to USM happened quickly, and it happened as fast as the 6-foot-5 right fielder and pitcher became a unanimous All-American.
But, without former Southern Miss assistant Michael Federico going up to Minnesota to see Wallner, and Caillet building relationships in the Minneapolis area, which was a relatively untouched recruiting ground for high school baseball recruits, Minnesota natives Ryan Och and Charlie Fischer wouldn’t be on the Golden Eagles’ roster today.
“There’s no question,” Berry said.
While Och arrived on campus a year before Fischer did, Fischer actually committed to Southern Miss before Och received the opportunity to play for the Golden Eagles.
While Wallner’s story to Southern Miss was unorthodox, how Och got to Southern Miss is just as bizarre. None of the Southern Miss coaches had ever seen Och pitch live, but pitching coach Christian Ostrander did see a video. How Berry and his coaches got turned on to Och was because of the connections they built while recruiting Wallner.
“Caillet connected with a guy up there who kind of has the ins with all of these Minnesota kids,” Berry said. “He flew up and saw Charlie, but we never saw Och. We took that guy’s recommendation on Och. We were relying heavily on what the guy told us.”
A recruitment like that isn’t totally rare, but it is uncommon. An example of a player Berry has recruited who he didn’t see play live was former Cy Young and World Series winner Cliff Lee. That was slightly different, though, because Lee was known around the baseball community, and he was looking for a community college so he could stay draft eligible, and Berry took him in with open arms at Meridian Community College.
Unlike Lee, Och wasn’t known all that much. The Southern Miss coaches trusted their connections in Minnesota and Och took a visit a month before school started. The heat and the humidity were the first two things he noticed, too.
“I came here July 10, a month before school started. I stepped off the plane and I was like, ‘wow.’ It was tough to get used to,” Och said. “My first fall was pretty tough adjusting. I thought that I was going to collapse on the field, but I’ve gotten used to it.”
The weather was a different animal for the Minnesota trio. While the college baseball season starts in February around the country, Minnesota high school baseball starts in April. Even then, while Mississippians are starting to feel the warmth of spring, snow could still be an issue in Minnesota.
“My senior year of high school, our opening day game, was 35 (degrees) and sleeting,” Och said. “We played a full game and it was tough. If it is coming down hard, yeah (shovel it in between innings), but otherwise if it’s steady snow they won’t let us play, which is unfortunate.”
An interesting twist is Och and Fischer’s high schools played each other once or twice a season. In 2017, Och’s senior season and Fischer’s junior year, Fischer’s Edina team beat Och’s Chanhassen squad 10-0 in the regular season. The two never battled face-to-face in Minnesota, though, but they both knew of each other.
“He never pitched against us, surprisingly, so I never saw him prior to getting down here to actually throw,” Fischer said. “I knew he was a good player, so I was excited to get down here.”
While Och never had to face Fischer, Och knew what he was capable of doing at the plate.
I knew whenever we played them he was one of their best hitters,” Och said. “Whenever our guys went to face him, they had to play it carefully. Obviously, he has a big bat, as he’s showing here.”
Even though Och is a year older, Fischer landed on Southern Miss’ radar before the 6-foot pitcher did. The only reason Fischer even knew about the Golden Eagles’ program was because of Wallner’s success during his freshman year in Hattiesburg. Before that? He knew nothing about the school.
“He was putting it on for Minnesota,” Fischer said. “Once he kind of took off and everything was blowing up around his name, him being from Minnesota, my family and I started to follow him a lot more.”
Sometime during his junior season, Caillet went and watched Fischer play, then he returned to Hattiesburg with the message, “the kid can hit.” Fischer had no idea the Southern Miss coach was watching in the stands either, but the two communicated a couple of times over the phone before Fischer took a visit to Southern Miss.
“I think they were playing UAB and my dad and I came down and fell in love with the atmosphere, the fans, the campus and just the program itself. It was unbelievable. The weather is obviously a lot better down here. Once we started talking, it just took off. I love it here.”
Fischer, who played in the outfield as a senior in college, is listed as an infield on Southern Miss’ roster, but his contributions to the team have been as a pinch hitter, though. He’s started the season 2-for-2 with two doubles and a walk, including the go-ahead RBI against Mississippi State in Game 1 of the three-game series.
“I’m just kind of trying to find the right fit for me, and now it’s just getting the bat in the lineup and helping the team any way I can,” Fischer said. “Whatever nine guys are out there, they’re the nine guys we believe in and the nine we think should be out there. When my name is called, I just try to step up to the plate and do my job.”
Of his three plate appearances this season, it wasn’t one of the two doubles that impressed the elder Minnesotan the most. Wallner thought his walk against New Orleans last week was more notable.
“The most impressive thing I’ve seen was his at-bat the other day when he took two sliders in the dirt, so he’s not pressing,” Wallner said.
How Wallner almost wasn’t a Golden Eagle
North Dakota announced its plans to shut down the baseball program around the same time of Wallner’s first high school baseball game of his senior year. Instead of going through his final season only worrying about the pitcher he’s facing, his future was uncertain.
There were certainly some hurdles to climb for Southern Miss to get Wallner on campus, too. The word started to get out that Wallner was a diamond in the rough, and the Southern Miss coaches had to battle with other college programs who wanted him, like Coastal Carolina, which was about to win the College World Series. After Wallner chose and signed with Southern Miss, his hometown team, the Minnesota Twins, took him in the 32nd round of the MLB Draft. Wallner was better than the 32nd round, but he was still somewhat unknown. Most of the time, a player like Wallner would still go to college to improve his draft stock, but with it being his hometown team, Berry and the Southern Miss coaches were worried.
So, they turned to a Southern Miss baseball alum for help.
“We didn’t know if the kid was going to sign or not, so I called Brian Dozier and said, ‘Look, I need you to do me a favor,’” Berry said. “‘I need you to call this kid from Minneapolis and talk to him. Problem is, your organization drafted him.’”
It was definitely a strange spot for Dozier, who at the time was playing for the Twins, but without question, he agreed. Dozier had already met Wallner, because Wallner was Minnesota’s Gatorade Player of the Year, so he threw out the first pitch at a Twins game for receiving that honor. As it turns out, Dozier caught that pitch.
A couple of weeks after Dozier called Wallner, Berry saw a news article that explained how the Twins’ second baseman called the Southern Miss signee to help him get to Hattiesburg. While it was perfectly legal, Berry was worried about it being a bad look for a player in the organization to talk to a draftee about not signing with that team.
“I was like, ‘Oh, crap,’” Berry said. “So I called Doz and said, ‘There’s an article where Wallner said you told him that he needs to come to Southern Miss and not sign. That’s not good.’ He said, ‘I’m not worried about all of that.’”
The rest is history.