Independent Baseball Player of the Year: Marshall’s Colton Peterson answers the call

Colton Peterson is a catcher. He has been since he first picked up a mitt. What seem like laborious tasks to the typical ballplayer, baking under all that gear or enduring the bruises after blocking pitches in the dirt, are the very things that keep Peterson engaged on the diamond. He’s long been comfortable calling pitches and on offense he drills them into the left-center gap, but for the 2013 season the Marshall coaching staff asked Peterson to try something new with a pitch. They asked him to throw one.

Peterson had never pitched before this season, and never really needed to. The class above his boasted four consistent arms (including three All-Area selections a year ago), while Peterson’s own grade had three effective pitchers as well. But when graduations, injuries and a weather-compressed schedule created a shortage of reliable pitching for the Tigers, Peterson was ready to answer the call.

In his first year on the mound, Peterson sported a 3.16 ERA over 24 1/3 innings for Marshall as the Tigers finished second in the Southwest Conference behind state tournament-bound Luverne.

His effectiveness during his first year on the hill, coupled with his ability to handle a suddenly inexperienced pitching staff and an outstanding offensive season penned Peterson into his latest spot – the 2013 Independent Player of the Year.

“Talk about a leader on and off the field, doing all those things that coaches expect kids to do is exactly what Colton did for us,” said Marshall head coach Chace Pollock. “Not only handling the pitching staff as a catcher, but throwing as a pitcher for the first time ever. Being able to pick up and figure out what we wanted him to do on the mound, he did that and he battled. In that respect I’m very proud of him. He’s a great leader for all our kids, from the younger youth kids all the way up to varsity.

“That was key for us, especially in that short schedule that we had. Not only his ability to catch the staff, but his ability to be a part of that staff; having someone who had never pitched before come in and step up there to be a leader for us was huge,” Pollock added. “Hitting third in the lineup for us, catching 10 different pitchers, then being able to come in and pitch yourself, there aren’t very many kids out there who would be able to do that, to be that flexible with things.”

While winter’s foray into spring may have forced Peterson to step out from behind the plate and take the rubber, it also provided him with three extra weeks to build up confidence before staring down an opposing batter for the first time. The extra training sessions, under the keen eye of former minor league pitcher and Marshall assistant Chris Hmielewski, proved to be invaluable.

“It helped me a lot, Coach Hmielewski really helped me a lot,” Peterson said. “My first year starting pitching, with him there it helped a lot. It helped to just get my mechanics down and figure out how to throw the ball and to throw it for strikes.”

Along with filling a spot in the rotation, Peterson was also called upon by his coaches to make up for the lost production at the plate. Marshall graduated its top four batters from 2012, each an All-Area selection, who took with them more than 30 extra-base hits and over 60 RBIs.

“I felt like all the seniors had pressure on them, especially with Leo (Zerr) being hurt right away,” Peterson said. “I felt like some key guys had to step up and I believe that we did.”

Peterson wasn’t the only player required to elevate his offensive game if the Tigers were going to remain competitive in a stacked Section 3AA. Aaron Mathiowetz and Derek Buysse also excelled offensively, as did freshman Drew Hmielewski, but it was Peterson who led the way.

After hitting .338 with 19 RBIs as a junior, Peterson saw a nearly 90-point uptick in his batting average in 2013. His mark of .426 was tops for the Tigers and third best in the area. He also scored 18 runs, drove in 16 and produced slugging and on-base percentages of .557 and .513, respectively. And that is after getting off to a slow start.

“We didn’t really see live pitching for awhile so it kind of started slow with the bats,” Peterson said. “We got a lot of throwing in during practice, but we didn’t see a lot of live pitching. Batting was difficult right away, just seeing the ball.”

Peterson found his stride at the plate, and so did the Tigers. After dropping six of their first nine games, Marshall closed out the season on an 8-3 run and was one of just four area teams to advance beyond the opening weekend of section playoffs.

A major reason for the late-season surge was Peterson’s handling of the pitching staff, which had little or (more commonly) no experience at the varsity level.

“Some guys just needed help staying in the game. It’s a little different coming from B-squad to varsity,” Peterson said. “I felt like our senior group did well keeping guys in games and helping out with the younger group. Like with (Drew) Hmielewski coming up, never having played varsity ball and just a freshman, I felt like we helped him out pretty well.”

Peterson’s insight into the tendencies of opposing players and coaches, the umps and the high school strike zone will likely continue to benefit his younger teammates in the future.

Baseball’s best kept secret is that it is actually an individual sport. Disguised as a team game, it is, in its essence, a showdown between a pitcher and a batter set 60 feet, 6 inches apart. But in this game of one-on-one matchups, Peterson has shown himself to be the consummate teammate.

“Colton’s a kid that will do anything. He’s very coachable and he’s a great leader in that respect,” Pollock said. “It just goes to show, over the wood bat tournament he played left field. He had never played left field before but he’s willing to pick his glove up. He knows his stick will be in the lineup and he’s just one of those kids that is ‘Yes sir’ and that’s what he does.”