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How UND baseball was able to sign Minnesota Twins rookie sensation Matt Wallner

When UND cut its baseball program in 2017, the school had already signed a future Major League player.

MLB: Game One-Minnesota Twins at Cleveland Guardians
Sep 17, 2022; Cleveland, Ohio, USA; Minnesota Twins right fielder Matt Wallner (38) rounds the bases after hitting a home run during the eighth inning against the Cleveland Guardians at Progressive Field.
Ken Blaze/USA TODAY Sports
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GRAND FORKS — Brian DeVillers was friends with the groundskeeper in Burnsville, Minn., so the former UND baseball assistant coach and a couple of other college baseball coaching friends escaped the June heat by sitting in a shed behind one of the diamonds to watch 10 hours of the 2014 Showtime Sports event for high school baseball prospects.

The coaches had rosters of the prospects and made marks next to names they were interested in recruiting.

Among the 200 kids playing in front of about 40 scouts, DeVillers started watching Matt Wallner, who was coming out of his sophomore year at Forest Lake, a northern suburb of the Twin Cities.

"This young kid who's 6-foot-4, good looking kid and ran well," DeVillers said. "He swung it well. He was a typical 16-year-old needing weight, but he piqued my interest and I put a star by him, so I'd keep watching him.

"The kid was pretty darn good and only 16 years old. I thought it might be a deal where he's too good. You hate to say it, but you could run into that where maybe he's a Gopher guy."

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DeVillers returned to Grand Forks and discussed his findings with UND head coach Jeff Dodson. DeVillers couldn't talk to Wallner at the field, as it was a quiet period for NCAA recruiting regulations.

DeVillers emailed Wallner to tell the prospect he saw him in Burnsville. He sent Wallner some information about UND, invited him to come to camp in Grand Forks and told him to give him a call if he wanted. He also asked Wallner which college baseball coaches he'd been in contact with so far.

"He wrote back right away," DeVillers said. "He was a polite kid. He said he hadn't talked to a college coach yet. I was, like, 'What the heck?'"

DeVillers started to wonder if the showcase program had the wrong jersey number associated with the player.

"I'm thinking there's no way; I got the wrong kid," DeVillers said. "Another week goes by, I go see him play. Same stuff. I loved what I saw with size and arm. I told him I think you could have a chance to pitch and hit for us, and I asked him again who he's talking to. He says you've asked twice now, and I'm telling you I haven't talked to anybody.

"So again, I'm thinking I don't have the right kid here. What the heck."

Looking back eight years later, DeVillers can only reason the era of college baseball recruiting didn't target underclassmen. He said you now routinely see freshmen and sophomores in high school make commitments.

UND baseball held prospect camps in the fall on Sundays following UND football games the day before.

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DeVillers told Dodson and former assistant J.C. Field that Wallner was coming to camp although he wasn't even sure if he'd been communicating electronically with the kid he saw on the field.

Wallner came to Kraft Field and went through drills.

"This is the right kid," DeVillers said. "I thought I had the wrong kid for three months. I thought the rosters had to be wrong. But he was really, really good just young and immature body-wise. He's taking (batting practice), and I'm behind the cage."

Dodson looks over to DeVillers.

"You've got the right kid," Dodson said. "We need to offer him ASAP."

Dodson remembers two main things about Wallner's first workout in Grand Forks.

"The first thing you notice is he's a head taller than anyone else," Dodson said. "Then there was the sound the ball made off his bat. It was a little different. It didn't go far. It came off hard, then died. But when you hear that sound, the carry will come with strength."

The UND coaches then got out the radar gun. They clocked Wallner in the mid-80's from right field. Then they put him on the mound. Again, he was in the mid-80's.

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It was a fantastic first impression all around.

"You can just get a vibe about a person," Dodson said. "They have a look about them that they're going to be great. They listen to you, make eye contact and don't get distracted. Every time I said something, he was eye contact the entire time."

When Wallner first came to camp in Grand Forks at the start of his junior year, he was 185 pounds. He left high school at 220 pounds.

"We were fortunate that he was not developed yet," Dodson said. "That's really the only reason we got him. Otherwise, some big school would've scooped him up quickly."

Dodson said that was DeVillers' strength as a recruiter.

"He has an ability to identify kids who could project," Dodson said. "His knack for finding that needle in a haystack was really good."

Dodson said that's how UND landed future pros in Andrew Thome, Tyler Follis, Jeff Campbell and Zach Muckenhirn.

Muckenhirn, who's now at AAA with the Chicago White Sox system, came to prospect camp at 82-83 miles per hour. He left UND at 92-93.

"That's really a tribute to Brian and the body of work he had when he was here," Dodson said. "His follow up was incredible, too. He was easy to talk to and diligent. He had connections. He knew who to talk to in order to make sure we were getting the right character kid."

By his senior year of high school, the secret was out about Wallner.

As a high school senior at Forest Lake, Wallner was 7-1 with a 0.95 earned-run average. He hit .382 with 10 home runs and was named Minnesota Mr. Baseball.

"It didn't matter who called him, he was coming to UND," Dodson said. "He was loyal to the fact we were the only team on him when nobody else was."

Of course, Wallner never came to UND as the university cut the baseball program during Wallner's senior season.

In 2016, Wallner was drafted in the 32nd round of MLB Draft by the Minnesota Twins. However, he didn't sign and chose to attend Southern Miss, a landing spot coordinated by Dodson.

Wallner would dominate as a freshman at Southern Miss in 2017. He hit .336 with 19 home runs and 63 RBI in 66 games. He also appeared in nine games out of the bullpen, compiling a 1.84 ERA.

Wallner would go on to hit a school record 58 career home runs at Southern Miss.

The Twins would select Wallner with the 39th overall pick in the 2019 MLB Draft.

Wallner started the 2022 season at AA Wichita and later was promoted to AAA St. Paul. In 128 games between the two, Wallner hit 27 home runs, 95 RBIs and 32 doubles.

Last Saturday, the Twins called up Wallner to the big leagues. He made his MLB debut, hitting a solo home run off of Shane Bieber of the Cleveland Guardians for his first MLB hit.

In his first six games with the Twins, Wallner has four RBI.

"I texted him Saturday afternoon, saying congrats for living out the dream," DeVillers said. "I was totally not expecting anything back. You know he got 9,000 texts that day. If he didn't say anything, I wouldn't have thought anything of it. But he said thanks and that he really appreciates it and hope you're doing great."

Dodson, who now works for the UND Alumni Association, said he's enjoyed following Wallner's ascension.

"It's great," he said. "I think it goes to show you, it's not where you start it's where you finish. Even when a bad hand is dealt to you, you still can come out and be good."

Related Topics: UND SPORTS
Miller has covered sports at the Grand Forks Herald since 2004 and was the state sportswriter of the year in 2019.

His primary beat is UND football but also reports on a variety of UND sports and local preps.

He can be reached at (701) 780-1121, tmiller@gfherald.com or on Twitter at @tommillergf.
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