KANNAPOLIS — It’s been almost eight years, but it seems like only yesterday that A.L. Brown’s baseball team was 10-run-ruling Lake Norman in the NPC tournament championship game at East Rowan’s Staton Field.
The Wonders were darn good in the first half of the 2000s. They were SPC co-champs in 2002, sharing that title with an East Rowan team so loaded that current New York Mets hurler Bobby Parnell was considered, at the time, the fifth-best player in his senior class. The Wonders were NPC tournament champs in 2004 and 2005, claiming both trophies even though the 3A state runner-up both seasons came out of the NPC — West Rowan in 2004 and Northwest Cabarrus in 2005.
A.L. Brown’s head coach hasn’t changed since those glory days, although coach Empsy Thompson’s face is a little more weathered now than when he could hand the pill to draft picks such as Zach Ward and Garrett Sherrill and not have to worry about making a pitching change.
There have been a lot more downs than ups for the baseball Wonders lately, and the realistic goal right now is to return to the playoffs rather than hanging a banner, but Thompson is clearly optimistic about the 2013 season.
The No. 1 reason for his optimism is a left-hander pitcher named Eldon Peters, who has signed with Surry Community College.
Surry CC, located in the small town of Dobson, was the school where ex-Wonders John Graham and Ryan Petty put up All-America numbers. Surry also is the place that was a springboard to a pro career for former South Rowan southpaw Rudy Brown.
The Knights always have had a strong program. If Peters is signing early with Surry that means he’s pretty good.
Thompson agrees with that.
“Eldon will be the guy we hand the ball to when it really matters,” he said. “He always asks for the ball in the big games, and we’ll give it to him. He’s gonna fight, and he’s gonna push everyone else to do the same.”
The lean 6-foot-1 Peters is left-handed and his father is a baseball guy, so the odds were always pretty good that he’d become a pitcher.
“When I was 12 and 13, we had a team called the Kannapolis Canes,” Peters said. “I pitched in some hard games, in AAU championship games, and we won a lot of games. You get used to the tenseness that comes from pitching in big games.”
Peters made his varsity debut as a sophomore in 2011.
“We had Dylan May and Zach Jones, so Eldon was pitching in the middle as a sophomore, but he took the ball when he could get it,” Thompson said. “We kicked it quite a bit that year. We didn’t support him a lot.”
Peters played some first base and outfield growing up, and he might do some of that for the Wonders this season, but pitching is where his heart is.
“He’s that typical left-hander,” Thompson said with a smile. “He’ll tilt his cap to the side a little bit and he’ll pitch with some emotion. He’s kinda quiet off the field, but when he’s on that mound, he competes.”
Besides pitching for the Wonders, Peters has hurled for the Charlotte Megastars showcase teams. That’s an organization directed by Jeff McNeely, a native of Monroe who went from junior college outfielder (Spartanburg Methodist) to playing a little outfield for the Boston Red Sox.
Peters has pitched against some tough lineups with the Megastars, although his basic approach is the same in high school or showcase — namely get ahead of the hitter.
“Unless it’s a hitter I need to catch off guard, I’ll try to throw a fastball for strike one,” Peters said. “After that, I’ll try to use whatever the umpire is giving me.”
Peters has a good arsenal of pitches. His fastball is usually 82-83 mph, which is solid velocity for a lefty, and at times, he can push the radar gun a little higher. He complements the fastball with a very good curve and a developing changeup. That changeup probably will be the key to his future.
“I’ve had a lot of people help me out with my pitching, but it all started with my Dad,” Peters said.
As a junior, Peters pitched effectively, although the Wonders struggled to score runs in the SPC.
“Eldon kept us in a lot of games last year, but we just couldn’t support him very much,” Thompson said. “I can only remember him having one bad outing. That was Cox Mill. The ball had eyes that day and was finding holes,”
Thompson believes he has more depth this season than he’s had in a while. Players up from a stout jayvee team will compete for jobs, and the Wonders have a larger than usual senior class and proven returners such as C.J. Powell, Ryan Austin and Micah Miller.
Thompson also has something not many teams have — an experienced ace pitcher.
“We can make the playoffs this year,” Peters said. “We really should.”
The Wonders will scrimmage Murderer’s Row — Hough, Weddington, Ragsdale and Randleman — all contenders for championships. That’s the sort of lineup that would’ve been challenging even when Thompson could write the names Brett Bartles and Ryan Query on his lineup card.
The Wonders open today at home against South Rowan.
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