In January, the Wichita State baseball team went to a Thunder hockey game. Since the Kansans and Oklahomans on the roster rarely grow up following the sport, they needed instruction on the rules.
Fortunately, there are a few dedicated hockey fans who can help. Closer Brandon Peterson, from Minnesota, tried to explain icing, off sides and power plays.
“They wanted to see some of the guys get in fights,” he said. “(Hockey fans) are few and far between down here.”
Peterson is one of them as a supporter of the Minnesota Wild. He found a few puckheads in the locker room — pitcher Tobin Mateychick roots for the Washington Capitals and equipment manager Dylan Seybert loves the Detroit Red Wings. Peterson grew up playing basketball and focused on baseball in high school. Hockey is a sport he watches.
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“If you don’t start skating when you’re 3, you’re kind of in trouble,” he said. “And my dad, being a basketball player, he never played hockey, and I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Peterson’s choice of baseball looks like the right one as he enjoys superb season. He will be a strong candidate for Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year after earning six saves and a 2-0 record in 10 conference appearances. He lowered his earned run average to 1.10 in MVC games with 2 1/3 scoreless innings in a 4-1 win over Creighton.
“I love catching that guy,” WSU sophomore Tyler Baker said. “He stands up there, and he’s eyeing the batter and eyeing the glove. He wants to go right at the hitter.”
Peterson, a junior from Savage, Minn., owns nine saves and a 1.31 ERA for the season and his 22 appearances lead the team. He came to WSU after two seasons as a starter and closer at Des Moines Area Community College. He had a reputation for throwing hard and battling control problems. At WSU, he turned into the rare transfer whose Division I numbers are better than at junior college. As a sophomore, he compiled a 4.94 ERA.
Pitching coach Brent Kemnitz made minor adjustments to his technique to help repeat his delivery consistently and move to the plate more quickly. Most of the changes came in his thinking. He is dedicated to following Kemnitz’s advice to immediately forget the previous pitch — good or bad.
“I knew, physically wise, my stuff was good enough to get hitters out,” Peterson said. “Coach Kemnitz doesn’t want us to get in our own heads with worrying about mechanics. It’s more about having faith in your performance and have faith in your approach and win every single pitch.”
Health, stability and experience are also helping Peterson. As a sophomore, a pinched nerve in his neck blocked the feeling in his index and middle fingers of his right hand. He started the season as a closer moved to starter when another pitcher had surgery, and returned to closer.
Kemnitz watched Peterson as a freshman in the NJCAA Division II World Series and loved his arm. He also knew Peterson, an all-state shortstop at Burnsville High, needed time to improve as a pitcher.
“I think it’s a matter of maturity and gaining confidence,” Kemnitz said. “He’s really bought into cleaning the brain out after each pitch and going to the next pitch.”
That mental approach allows his powerful right arm to do most of the work. He relies on a two-seam fastball that runs between 90-95 mph and a slider. Baker says he his changeup is effective, although it’s not a pitch he uses often.
“He’s excelled at whatever role we’ve put him in,” WSU coach Gene Stephenson said. “He has a great mental makeup. He really works hard on his conditioning and has done whatever we’ve asked him to do.”
That role is closer at WSU and it is one Peterson enjoys. On Sunday, he needed to get one out in the seventh and finished off Creighton with two more innings, allowing one runner.
“At the end of games, I like having the ball in my hands,” he said. “Being a closer, it gives me a chance of playing every single game.”