PANOLA, Texas (BVM) — We have seen the power of JUCO work on the show “Last Chance U” repeatedly. Well, the power of another JUCO school, Panola College, is helping Matthew Etzel make his D1 baseball dreams come true.
Coming out of Clear Creek High School, Etzel was regarded as one of the top prospects in Texas. He was voted unanimous all-district 24-6A first-team selection as an outfielder in 2018 and hit .300 as a sophomore. The highly-touted prospect committed to Texas A&M to play baseball once his prep career had ended.
“Matthew has a great combination of speed and strength,” Aggie assistant coach Justin Seely said about Etzel in a release. “He has the ability to change the game in a bunch of different ways. He can drive the ball out of the ballpark and beat out an infield single. There is real electricity in his body.”
But after one semester at Texas A&M, Etzel decided to leave.
It may have looked like his dreams of playing baseball were over, but his brother Landon, who played baseball at the University of Incarnate Word at the time, was looking out for him and pointed him to Panola.
“My brother was playing baseball [at UIW], and one of his volunteer coaches actually went to Panola,” Matt said. “He trusted the head coach with his life. He helped lead me to that, and I was like, ‘Shoot, why not try out?’”
Things completely changed for Matt and his career when he reached Panola. During the 2020-21 season, he batted .328, hit four home runs and had 18 RBIs. But he would only play in 39 games. Eager to get more playing time, Matt kept his mind on baseball and made the improvements heading into the 2021-22 season.
“I just wanted to play,” Matt said. “I don’t like sitting around; I just want to play.”
That’s exactly what he did. He took the field the following season and became one of the most feared JUCO hitters in Texas. He was so dominant that at the end of the season, he was named Region 14 Player of the Year.
Region 14 Player of the Year! @etzel34 Finished the year:
AVG .427/ OBP .504/ SLG .704
88 H / 20 2B / 8 3B / 7 HR
52 RBI / 58 R / 21 SB
— Panola Baseball (@PanolaBaseball) May 10, 2022
“I definitely felt I was going to play a lot better than the first year,” Matt said. “[I] definitely did better than I thought I would [though].”
However, that’s not where Matt’s journey is going to end. He has committed to the University of Southern Mississippi, where he will continue his baseball career.
“It just felt like it was the right spot for me,” Matt said. “I know those guys want to get back to super regionals and go to Omaha. I’m excited to get there and help those guys [do that].”
Blessed to announce I will be furthering my academic and athletic career at the University of Southern Mississippi! Thank you to everyone who has helped me along the way! #SMTTT pic.twitter.com/jtS2Ay3v9R
— Matthew Etzel (@etzel34) May 5, 2022
Some may wonder, can he transfer his hitting abilities to the highest-level college baseball offers?
Just ask him, and you’ll find out he really isn’t worried about proving others wrong. He just wants to improve daily and become the best baseball player he can be.
“[I] just [want] to get one percent better every day,” Matt said. “That was my mindset and goal for my whole last entire years of playing baseball.”
No matter what happens next for Matt, one thing will be in the back of his mind for his whole life. That is his time at Panola College. There he blossomed into the baseball player he had hoped to become out of high school. But with the competitiveness of DI, Matt felt like he needed to develop somewhere else.
“[My time at Panola] was the best thing possible for me,” Matt said. “I don’t think I could have made a better decision.”
Matt still has two years of eligibility remaining. And where does that future path lead for him? Who knows? It could be a shot in MLB, though.
“If I’m ready for the draft, I’ll take that shot,” Matt said. “We’ll see when that time comes and [see what happens].”
Nonetheless, whether you’re a fan of Panola or Southern Miss, Matt will bring his best to the field every day to show that he is one of the diamonds in the rough.
“Once people keep watching me play, [that underrated narrative label] will change,” Matt said.
As the remarkable baseball prospect eyes his future in Hattiesburg, he will be joining Scott Berry and a team that is hungry to reach Omaha. The team has some of the most underappreciated talents in the nation, and they are only bringing in more talent to the squad. Matt will do his best to bring his best to the field. And if that leads him to MLB, so be it. But he has taken his own path and found a way to play and flourish at the game he loves to play.
“If you [a high school athlete] are going D1, don’t be surprised if you don’t play for the first couple of years,” Matt said. “JUCO is somewhere where you can play and develop [as a player]. Looking back, this is probably the best decision I’ve ever made.”