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AARON FERGUSON: Austin Peterson's unique path from Chesterton to UConn comes full circle in NCAA Regional
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COLLEGE BASEBALL | NOTRE DAME REGIONAL

AARON FERGUSON: Austin Peterson's unique path from Chesterton to UConn comes full circle in NCAA Regional

SOUTH BEND — UConn and Michigan both appeared on a list of 30 schools that Austin Peterson wrote down with a common goal in mind: Pitch for a school that can win a championship.

A pause for COVID-19 nearly left the Huskies awaiting an at-large bid, but after winning the Big East, the Chesterton grad toed the rubber Friday in hopes of pitching UConn to the winners bracket against Michigan. And like he has all year, Peterson gave the Huskies a chance to win.

“It’s been a lot of fun with this group of guys and this coaching staff. They make it really easy to go out there and compete," Peterson told The Times this week. "It’s truly a family here, so I’m really happy with this year and happy with the decision I made to come to Connecticut.”

Peterson allowed one run on two hits, walking three and striking out seven over 5 2/3 innings at the Notre Dame Regional. He left the game in a 1-1 tie, one the Huskies, making their seventh regional appearance in 11 years, eventually won 6-1. UConn will play Notre Dame, which beat Central Michigan 10-0, at 5 p.m. Region time on Saturday.

“When he’s dominating, I think the one thing he does better than most of our guys is his fastball command,” UConn pitching coach Josh MacDonald told The Times this week. “He’s able to command both sides of the plate. He pitches with relatively a low amount of fear. A lot of guys are afraid someone is going to run on a fastball or take them deep. He’s not, he’ll go out there and throw underneath a guys hands, he doesn’t mind pitching in, he’ll freeze a guy. To me, I think he’s always at his best when he’s dictating the outcome without having to go to his secondary stuff. He gets weak contact, jam shots and rollover ground balls.”

The opportunity to pitch 52 miles from his home in Chesterton almost didn’t come. The Huskies had to pause their season with 10 players testing positive for COVID-19, MacDonald said, and weren’t going to have enough games to qualify for the Big East Tournament. Though the regular-season champs had Xavier and its head coach Billy O’Conner come through, pushing back the four-game series between the two allowing them to end their quarantine and qualify for a tournament they'd win over Xavier.

“He didn’t have to do the things that he did to help us get games in, and if we didn’t play them in those four games, we would’ve been just under the 14 games needed to play,” MacDonald said.

Peterson attended Purdue as a freshman and was largely a reliever. His pandemic-shortened sophomore season was spent at junior college power Wabash Valley, where he was asked to create a list of 30 schools he'd like to pitch at after the season.

“There was just differences with the coaching staff (at Purdue). I didn’t feel that was the best fit to progress my baseball career,” Peterson said earlier this week. “I just needed a change of scenery, and I really got that with UConn. It was a good year, a good learning experience at Purdue, but ultimately it came down to I really wanted to go somewhere I could compete for a championship. Obviously coming to UConn has given me that and we’ve won it.”

It wasn’t always certain he was going to end up so far from home. MacDonald was unsure of the fit, but still reached out the night Peterson made his list.

“We were able to pull up some of his clips from when he was at Purdue. I actually kind of rejected the idea because we don’t have a lot of Midwest kids on our team,” MacDonald, who is also the recruiting coordinator, said. “Most of the kids there end up at a Big Ten school.”

The 6-foot-6 right-hander made the decision pay off for both parties. He is now 7-1 with a 2.58 ERA and 82 strikeouts in 80 ⅓ innings.

“I figured he’d say no. He said yes, and thank God he did,” MacDonald said laughing. “He’s really made us a tough matchup. "We think we’re a pretty balanced team but a lot of that has to do with the guys who take the ball first and he’s a big part of that.”

Peterson fell in love with Connecticut’s culture. He’s elevated himself as a MLB Draft prospect and accomplished his goal of winning a Big East championship.

“It’s unbelievable the impact (my coaches have) had on me. Coach Mac has allowed me to go out there and pitch my game, instilling the confidence in me that I’m here for a reason, I’m pitching on Friday nights for a reason and that’s the big thing,” he said. “Another thing is just having fun. They allow me to go out there and just be myself, having fun, and with a great group of guys behind me. They’ve allowed me to do that.”

And the East coasters have taken a liking to the wide-smiled Midwesterner, too.

“He’s very proud of where he comes from and who he comes from,” MacDonald said, noting Peterson’s wishes to have the coaching staff meet his parents after a game against Georgetown this year. “Off the field he’s a gentleman, he’s nice and all that stuff. When he’s on the mound: mean.”

That competitiveness came out against Southern Miss, another regional team, this season. Peterson was walked-off by the Golden Eagles in his first career appearance at Purdue, allowing two hits, hitting a batter and allowing an unearned run to score in a 7-6 loss.

He wanted revenge in the Huskies’ uniform after his new team lost the first two games of the series.

Peterson threw six innings, allowing one run on two hits and a walk, striking out eight. UConn won the game 10-7 but it was 7-1 when he turned the ball over to the bullpen.

“He looked me right in the eye and he said, ‘I’m getting revenge on these guys.’ … He just went out there and stood on his head,” MacDonald said. “To me, he showed me, again, you can be Midwest nice all day long but when you get between the lines, that kid was going to fight for us and he has some pride to him.”

Peterson said he was grateful to have 20 close friends and family members that hadn’t seen him pitch all year, and even more fill Notre Dame's stands. He had dreamed of a moment like this during his time at Chesterton, and 52 miles from home it came true.

Said Peterson: “Probably my sophomore year of high school when I got The Times Player of the Year in the Region. I’d say that was probably the time that I was like, ‘I’m a sophomore and I’m getting this award. I can probably do this for awhile.’”

Aaron Ferguson is the assistant sports editor at The Times. The opinions of this column are his. He can be reached at aaron.ferguson@nwi.com. Follow him on Twitter @Sports_Aaron.

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