Over the next few months and into the spring NCAA D1 baseball season, Banners on the Parkway will feature player profiles and interviews from the 2019 Xavier baseball roster. We will take a closer look at some of the athletes, coaches and staff that make up the highly rated Musketeer squad as they strive to become Big East Champions for the third time in four years. First up is, the senior first baseman from Leamington Ontario, Matt Warkentin.
The 6’ 6”, 250 lbs. senior took a somewhat circuitous route to reach Xavier University in the fall of 2017. He originally started his post high school career at the University of San Francisco where he appeared in 25 games for the Don’s while hitting .129. Left handed Warkentin also pitched eleven innings as a freshman before concentrating solely on being a position player at the collegiate level.
From USF, Warkentin transferred to Johnson County Community College in Kansas. Warkentin told Dave Selvig of the Bismark Tribune in August that the move to the JUCO route for a year was a good decision. “That was the best thing I could’ve done. There aren’t as many rules and regulations for the coaches, so you can take as much BP (batting practice) as you want, you can take ground balls all day long. I needed a place where I could get a lot of work in.” His slash line that year was .359/.432/.671 (average/on base/slugging) and a ridiculously high OPS of 1.103 (slugging plus on base). That got the coaching staff’s attention at Xavier and Warkentin was recruited in 2017.
The hardworking Warkentin hit the ground running in his first season with the Musketeers in 2018. He belted a team leading 14 home runs, while hitting a respectable .252. For a man of his stature, Warkentin moves very well and played excellent defense at first base, committing only two errors all year.
We caught up with Matt last week in between practice and studies to share his views on growing up in Ontario on an apple farm, the upcoming baseball season, and what’s next after graduation.
Banners on the Parkway: Matt, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions today. I know you guys keep a pretty busy schedule. Before we get into the baseball, let’s talk about your childhood on a 60 acre family apple farm in Ontario Canada. While I’m sure it was a lot of work for you and your brother, it seems like a pretty neat environment to grow up in. Can you tell me a little bit what that was like for you?
Warkentin: It was a lot of fun growing up on the farm because not many kids get to experience that. It was cool because we would get off the bus and go to the orchard with Dad after school. It was a neat experience that not every kid gets to have, so it was a lot of fun. My grandparents lived on the farm growing up as well. They were our neighbors, so it was a big family ordeal for sure.
Banners on the Parkway: What other sports did you play besides baseball? Is baseball as popular in Canada as it is in the US?
Warkentin: I did play hockey growing up, but I quit before I got to high school. I played volleyball in high school and did some badminton as well. I guess I liked the court sports. I didn't play baseball for my high school because high school baseball is not really big in Canada, but I did play summer ball.
Baseball is growing in Canada and it’s getting a lot bigger with things like the PBR (Prep Baseball Report) showcases which were just starting when I was growing up in high school. More Canadians are coming over here to play college baseball as well.
Banners on the Parkway: When I think of great current baseball guys from Canada and a first baseman none the less, Joey Votto jumps to mind. Did you have Canadian baseball idols growing up?
Warkentin: Ya, Joey Votto for sure. I like watching him and getting to see him here is pretty cool. Also, one of the guys that has really helped me is Jamie Romak who played in the Diamondback organization and who I saw play in San Fran. He played parts of two years in the Big Leagues, one with the Diamondbacks and one with the Dodgers. He’s actually out playing in Korea now and they just won the whole thing out there. I hit with him in the off-season. He’s been a big role model and has helped me significantly with my career.
Banners on the Parkway: You had a couple of stops during your collegiate career before arriving at Xavier in 2017. What was that journey like for you and did coach Billy O’Conner recruit you?
Warkentin: My first stop was the University of San Francisco where I was there for a year. That didn't work out and I ended up at Johnson County Community College. That was like the greatest decision that I ever made transferring there. I loved it there, we had a really good team. I’m not sure where Billy saw me. I think he was in contact with my summer coach with the Great Lake Canadians in Ontario. I think he was in touch with them and they mentioned my name and Billy reached out to my Junior college coach. I took a visit here (to Xavier) late November, early December 2016 and I committed to Xavier early 2017 right before our season started at Johnson County.
Banners on the Parkway: It was a tough year for the Musketeers in 2018 finishing up at 20-35 and missing the Big East tournament. What were some of positives that you can take away from last season and your goals for 2019?
Warkentin: We have a good group of guys this year, not that we didn't last year, but we have the potential to be really good. My teammates are awesome. I made a really good choice coming to Xavier. We have a lot of returning players from last year. Both Williams boys were injured last year and are healthy now, so that is huge for us. Obviously, we lost guys like Joe Gellenbeck, but we have a lot of returning every day guys so that’s a positive. Everyone has one more year of experience and at the same time I think we have a good group of young guys who can step in and be good for us right away.
Banners on the Parkway: Matt, I saw you had a nice year for the Bismark Larks this past summer in the very competitive wood bat Northwoods League. You hit .309, slugged .526 and were tied for second in the league with 14 home runs. Your spray chart indicated that you were doing a good job of using the entire field. Were there any specific adjustments that you made that lead to your continued improvement at the plate?
Warkentin: I had about 200 at bats at Xavier in the Spring and just tried to build off that going into the summer. I just wanted to be a really good hitter this summer and hit the ball to all fields, focus more on being a good hitter rather than hit for power. In doing that, my power numbers didn’t go away as much as I thought they would. We had a really good hitting coach, a young guy named Brett Lindsey He would hit with me everyday before games early and even before batting practice. We worked on driving the ball the other way. It just adds another asset to your game.
Banners on the Parkway: What are the team and your personal goals for the upcoming season?
Warkentin: Like you said, we did not have a great year last year, but I think this team will do something special. I want to make a run deep into the postseason and ultimately get to Omaha. Personally, I just want to stay healthy, be a reliable guy and help the team win. The rest will take care of itself.
Banners on the Parkway: I certainly think you could play at the next level. What are your plans after graduation?
Warkentin: I could see myself playing after college. I’m not ready to be done playing. I just want to focus on helping the team win and it will all work itself out. I definitely want to pursue professional baseball if the opportunity arises.
Banners on the Parkway: I know you can hit it a long way off the tee. In a driving contest, who should I put my money on for the longest drive: You, Taylor Williams or Conner Grammes?
Warkentin: I’d put your money on Grammes, I can’t hit the ball straight on command.
Banners on the Parkway: That’s great, thanks Matt. I really appreciate your time and best of luck next season.