Softball is one of the newest sports at Purdue, with the team only starting in the spring of 1994. There were some growing pains in the early years, but Coach Bruggeman built the team slowly yet steadily. Even though she left in 2005, Coach Maher continued the work in her absence. By 2008, they made their first NCAA Tournament appearance, and 2009 led to their best win yet with a road win over #18 Louisville to make a Regional Final appearance. A couple of low years after that would have been somewhat expected, as Purdue lost a lot of key contributors to those 2008 and 2009 runs. However, while things didn’t crater immediately, just before Coach Maher left after the 2013 season, things began to drop. Ever since 2015, things have been around the same place: while the nonconference results can vary, the Boilermakers are usually comfortably in the bottom half of the conference and get eliminated either in the First Round or the Quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. There has not been an NCAA appearance since 2009. Considering that the program was built relatively quickly, I am confident that if the development matches the recruiting that has been happening over the past couple of years, Purdue will be right back in the NCAA conversation sooner instead of later.
As a whole, last season was pretty disappointing. Sure, there were positive moments, such as a 5-0 weekend in Conway to start the season, a perfect run through the Spring Games, a win at #22 South Florida while beating one of the hottest pitchers in the NCAA, and winning the last two series in Big Ten play to earn a berth to the Big Ten Tournament. However, there were more negatives. Purdue’s offense would often go dormant for long stretches, leading to losses to teams like Stephen F Austin, Illinois State, and Southern Illinois-Edwardsville. When Purdue had to face an elite opponent, especially if it was on the road, they got boatraced almost every time. They didn’t even push their First Round matchup against Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament to the full seven innings. The major problem here is that Purdue is still stuck in the bottom half of the conference, where they’ve been for the entirety of the De Oliveira era.
There has been some roster churn over the past offseason, and this means there are some unknowns with how the Boilermakers will perform. I will start by going over key departures, and there is one major loss: Rachel Becker was the most consistent offensive performer last season for the Boilermakers, leading the team in batting average, hits, doubles, total bases, and walks. There were a few games where she was the entire Boilermaker offense, and she has graduated over this past offseason. It will be a major loss for Purdue. There are a few other starters from last year who do not return, such as Kaeley Hallada, Rylee Platusic, and Brenna Smith. However, a decent percentage of last year’s production returns, with key returners in my expectation being Jade Moy, Kaitlynn Brannstrom, and do-it-all Alex Echazarreta. The main reason for the roster churn is that Purdue has a lot of new faces for this year: they brought in eleven freshmen and five transfers for the 2023 season. The freshmen make up a very highly rated class, and the transfers include multiple players who have long records of successful play, albeit at lower levels. With this in mind, it is rather treacherous to determine an expected starting lineup, but I’m going to do my best.
C: Anna Lonchar 1B: Kaitlynn Brannstrom 2B: Jade Moy
3B: Olivia McFadden SS: Jordyn Ramos LF: Kiersen George
CF: Kiara Dillon RF: Kate Claypool P: Alex Echazarreta
I would argue that this is a reasonably balanced schedule: the Boilermakers will square off against power conference foes at least once every week, but there are also mid-major games mashed in. These mid-major games shouldn’t be taken lightly, especially when they are played away from Bittinger Stadium, but Purdue needs to get in a habit of winning those games more often. Also, softball is a sport with some rather volatile results, especially in the early part of the season, so I will not be predicting each game individually unless it is an individual game. Instead, I will be looking at each weekend one at a time and making a prediction of Purdue’s overall success over the weekend.
2/10-2/12: JoAnne Graf Classic
Games ag Lipscomb, ag Longwood, ag Lipscomb, @Florida State, ag Longwood
Last season, Lipscomb with right around the middle of the Atlantic Sun conference, Longwood was one of the best teams in the Big South conference that was one game away from the NCAA Tournament, and Florida State was one of the best teams in the Atlantic Coast conference and the nation. In regard to roster updates, Lipscomb loses only their best contact hitter and one of their less used pitchers, Lipscomb looks to bring back about half of last year’s hitting while losing their ace pitcher who had over half of the starts last season, and Florida State returns the majority of their offense and their ace pitcher while losing one starting hitter, one key offensive reserve, and their second-best pitcher. To be honest, I’m not sure how the Boilermakers will start this season, so while three wins over this tournament is a possibility, I’ll predict two for the time being.
The reason that Longwood fell just short of the NCAA Tournament is that Campbell knocked them out in the Big South Tournament final. The Camels were a good mid-major last season, although they did tend to struggle against power conference foes. Campbell loses a couple of their best power hitters from last year and half of their one-two punch of elite pitchers, but everyone else returns. Since Campbell’s strength was their pitching last season, I would argue that this result is very dependent on who Campbell decides to pitch. If Isabella Smith, their ace, is on the mound, then Purdue may not have much of a shot given how unknown their offensive capabilities are. However, I’ll bet they could do damage against whoever is replacing Campbell’s second-best pitcher this season. Based on last year’s midweek game decisions, I’d say Smith is the most likely candidate, so I’ll pick pessimistically here.
2/17-2/19: Big Ten/ACC Challenge
Games @North Carolina State, ag Syracuse, @North Carolina State, ag Syracuse
The Big Ten/ACC Challenge has been happening since 2016, and there will be eight teams from each conference squaring off for conference bragging rights. Purdue doesn’t have the greatest track record of helping the Big Ten in this event, but this year provides an opportunity. Neither Syracuse nor North Carolina State performed particularly well in ACC play last season, so these games are winnable. To add reasons for optimism, Syracuse lost some of their best hitters and two of their best three pitchers over the offseason, and North Carolina State is going through almost a complete offensive overhaul. The wins may not mean as much come May, but I predict Purdue’s best showing at this tournament since 2016.
2/24-2/26: Knights Classic
Games ag Columbia, ag Bradley, ag Bradley, @Central Florida, ag Louisville
Purdue travels to Orlando for their last weekend of February. Columbia has very similar statistics to Purdue and loses slightly more in terms of proven production, but their overall schedule was considerably easier, and they performed rather poorly outside of Ivy League play. From a distance, Bradley appeared to be a middling Missouri Valley team in 2023, but they had some positive moments, and they have a history of beating Purdue under Coach De Oliveira in early season tournaments. They loser a few starters from last season, but the majority of their 2022 production returns. Central Florida was a strong mid-major last season, making it all the way to the Super Regionals. They lose a considerable chunk of last year’s production, but they have been active in the transfer market to patch holes. Finally, Louisville was a pretty middling ACC team last year that lost a couple of their best hitters, but return a decent chunk of a roster that beat several teams that Purdue lost to. Getting a winning record in this tournament is certainly a possibility, but I’ll hold off from picking that at this point.
3/3-3/5: Carolina Classic
Games @North Carolina, ag James Madison, @North Carolina, ag James Madison
The next weekend tournament action for the Boilermakers will be held in Chapel Hill, which will be much further for Purdue than either of the other teams in this field. North Carolina is probably similar to Purdue in some ways, where they had one very good weekend early in the season, then mostly struggled from there. They did perform better against elite teams, though. They lose just under half of last year’s production, and while they used transfer help for pitching, they’ll try to grow their hitting organically. Over the past decade, James Madison has been not only one of the best mid-majors in its region, but one of the best mid-majors in the country, culminating with a Women’s College World Series appearance in 2021. However, they must have had somewhat of an exodus of talent from that 2021 team, because their 2022 season was just average. Due to the tragic death of one of their players mid-season, they cancelled the last couple of weeks of their season, so we don’t really know how things could have finished. However, they were handed several complete beatdowns last season, and they were only picked fifth in their conference this season. An overall split here is reasonable, and hope for better results is not totally far-fetched.
3/10-3/12: Cal State Fullerton Tournament
Games ag Brown, @Cal State Fullerton, ag Weber State, ag Long Beach State, ag Sacramento State
The next weekend sees the Boilermakers travel to California to face five different opponents, most of whom are located within the state. Brown was really not any better than Columbia last season, and they lost some of their best hitters and their best pitcher over the offseason. Cal State Fullerton finished first in their conference and since the Big West does not play a conference tournament, that was enough to make it to the NCAA Tournament. They had some impressive wins in their nonconference season and beat Louisiana State while there, but that was their only win in the regional. They return almost every major contributor from last year, so they are expected to repeat in the Big West this season. Weber State had a very good overall record last season and rolled through the Big Sky Tournament to earn an NCAA berth. However, once they made it there, they got swept aside without too much difficulty, prompting questions as to how much of their record was due to a soft conference. Thanks to the COVID year rule, they bring back a majority of their production from last year, although their power hitting will be considerably weaker if they don’t get help from new faces. Long Beach State was in competition with Cal State Fullerton for the top spot in the Big West; but lost two of three to the Titans in Fullerton during the final weekend of the season to fall just short. They lose a lot of offensive production from last year, but they return their strong one-two punch at pitcher. Finally, while Sacramento State did finish second in the Big Sky and made it all the way to the tournament final, they were clearly behind Weber State, both in nonconference success and direct competition. They return almost every major contributor from last year, so they hope to close that gap in 2023. This tournament has some good mid-majors that could be useful on an NCAA resume if a lot of things go right, and while this could be a rough weekend, I believe that Purdue will be humming on all cylinders by this point, and thus a winning weekend is in the proverbial cards.
3/15: @Mississippi State
The Boilermakers take an extra stop for a neutral site game in Starkville before traveling to their last preseason tournament of the year. Mississippi State was a good team that you could say got hot at the right time. This team had been somewhat successful in nonconference play, and while they weren’t winning consistently in SEC play, they were notching some wins against tough competition. It was enough to squeak into the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team, and after a rough start, they caught fire near the end of the regional, beating South Florida and then stunning host Florida State twice in a row to advance to the Super Regional. Just as quickly as it came, the momentum left, and they got manhandled by Arizona at home in the Super Regional. They lose their best hitter, who had about ten fewer home runs that Purdue’s entire team in 2022, and their best pitcher, but almost everyone else returns. I would love to see a Purdue win here, but I don’t think the pieces are in play for that yet.
3/16-3/18: Rebel Invitational
Games ag Samford, ag St. Thomas (MN), @Mississippi, ag St. Thomas (MN), @Mississippi
Purdue has a shot to maintain some positive momentum going into Big Ten play. They start this tournament against Samford, who was a decent mid-major last year. They rolled through Southern Conference play and made it all the way to the tournament final before taking their final loss. They lost about half of last year’s starting lineup, but they return a pretty strong pair of pitchers, so they could make any game interesting. On paper, St. Thomas (MN) was a pretty weak team last year, struggling both in nonconference play and in Summit League play. Still, they made things uncomfortable for the Boilermakers last season in the USF Invite. They bring back the majority of that team, so they hope for some improvement this season. Finally, Mississippi fared quite well in nonconference play, and then finished around the middle of a grueling Southeastern Conference. It was enough to earn them a berth into the NCAA Tournament, where they made the Regional Final before losing at California-Los Angeles. They lose some key hitters from last year and about half of their consistent pitchers, but they brought in at least one key transfer, and I’m sure at least one freshman will make an immediate impact. If Purdue takes care of business, they should get out of Oxford with a winning record.
3/21: vs Indiana State
The Sycamores were pretty average in 2022, both in nonconference play and conference play. It should be noted that they did not beat a single power conference team last year. They lost almost half of their starting offense over the past offseason, but they do return both of their best pitchers. This is the sort of game that Purdue has to win in order to be taken seriously.
3/24-3/26: @Nebraska for three
The Cornhuskers were one of the best teams in the Big Ten last season, as evidenced by their Big Ten Tournament win and berth into the NCAA Tournament. They had a bit of a rough start to the season, but when they pulled together, they were dominant for a long stretch of the season. They lose Cam Ybarra, one of their best combo hitters for average and power, and their ace pitcher Olivia Ferrell, but almost every other contributor returns. This was also a very good team at home, where Purdue struggled last season in true road games. Squeaking out one win is possible, and getting a series win would be huge here, but I’ll predict that Purdue struggles to start Big Ten play.
3/29: vs Indiana for two
The rivalry takes center stage during a Wednesday evening in West Lafayette. Indiana was a pretty average team last season, so I think a split here is entirely reasonable.
3/31-4/2: @Rutgers for three
The Rutgers series was where Purdue started its push to avoid the embarrassment of missing the Big Ten Tournament entirely, and thanks to a gutsy twelve inning win in the middle game, they clawed out a series win to gain some positive momentum. Rutgers was decent in nonconference play, but then the bottom fell out once Big Ten play started. Despite not even being invited to the Big Ten Tournament, they did get an invite to the National Invitational Softball Championship, where they went out meekly after two games. For what it’s worth, other than home run leader Gabrielle Callaway, they return every major contributor from last season, so this will be an experienced team. Still, I’d argue that Purdue should win this series.
4/7-4/9: vs Wisconsin for three
It’s a bit difficult to get a good read on this team, but I’m guessing they’ll be at least decent. They started hot in 2022, getting some very nice wins in the St. Pete Clearwater Elite Invitational and sweeping Utah in Salt Lake City. They started fairly well in Big Ten play, but when they struggled, they really struggled, getting swept three different times in conference play. They managed to make their way to the NCAA Tournament, where they made it all the way to the Regional Final before getting smacked by Florida. Thanks to the extra COVID year, they bring back their best hitter and best pitcher from last season, both of whom were among the best in the conference. They do lose a few depth pieces, so if the new pieces struggle, Purdue could take a series win here. Still, I’ll predict the Boilermakers can’t overcome Wisconsin’s elite talent and lose the series.
4/12: vs Southern Illinois-Edwardsville
Purdue actually played SIU-Edwardsville twice last season, and this was the one of the peaks of volatile results and irritation that this team provided. Despite decent pitching performances for the most part, Purdue’s offense could not solve the Cougar pitchers and Purdue lost both games in Boca Raton. Those games were probably the high point for SIU-Edwardsville, as they did not beat another power conference opponent and finished in the bottom half of the Ohio Valley Conference. They lost their most consistent pitcher and a few starters from last season, but a lot of the major players return. Hopefully Purdue remembers what happened last season and turns the tables with a lopsided win here.
4/14-4/16: vs Michigan for three
It was quite a good season for the Wolverines in 2023. They had a strong nonconference season to bolster their resume, and they played pretty well in the Big Ten regular season and Big Ten Tournament. This was enough to earn them an NCAA spot, and they made it to the Regional Final before losing to host Central Florida. There was quite a lot of roster turnover over the past offseason, although they brought in a very good freshman class. It should be noted that their longtime coach Carol Hutchins decided to retire at the conclusion of this past season. Despite all of this evidence, Purdue needs some upset series to spark a new direction, and I predict this will be that series.
4/18: vs Butler
The start of the season held some promise for Butler, but it just fell apart at the end. Their nonconference season went pretty well, including a win over Iowa and a close loss to Ohio State. They then won almost every Big East series that they played, only to go two and out in the Big East Tournament. Overall, the majority of their main contributors return, but this was a team that relied on small ball a lot, and two of their three top speedsters aren’t on this year’s roster. They also lose both of their main pitchers from last season. This game is losable if Purdue plays poorly, but the Boilermakers should win this one.
4/21-4/23: @Ohio State for three
Purdue only saw Ohio State once last season, and it was an ugly 8-0 loss that didn’t even go the full seven innings. It was part of a run that saw Ohio State go to the Big Ten Tournament Semifinals before losing a nailbiter to Nebraska. Overall, the Buckeyes were a solid team in 2022, with some very nice wins in nonconference play and a winning record in Big Ten play. It was enough to earn them a spot in the NCAA Tournament, the fourth of Purdue’s 2023 conference opponents who were NCAA teams last season. They lose ace pitcher Lexi Handley and second-best hitter Niki Carver, but every other major contributor returns. I expect Purdue to pick off one game, but winning this series in Columbus is a tough obstacle.
4/28-4/30: @Michigan State for three
To be honest, Michigan State had some of the most consistent results in the Big Ten. They fared pretty well in nonconference play, albeit against a fairly soft schedule. However, they struggled in Big Ten play, with the only series that they won being at Purdue. It helped that the Boilermaker offense went completely missing over that series. Despite the forgettable record, the team had reasonably good statistics, and while they lose some starters from last season, they return their best average hitter, their best power hitter, and their best pitcher. Hopefully Purdue can use their improvements over the season to take this series.
5/5-5/7: vs Penn State for three
Penn State doesn’t have a particularly rich softball history during their time in the Big Ten, but they were decent last year. They fell a bit short of an NCAA berth, but this was still a solid team. Thanks to the extra COVID year, almost every major contributor is back this season, most of whom will be seniors or fifth years. There will be questions about how Penn State will perform once all of this production is gone, but for now, I'll predict that experience, combined with a potential push for an NCAA berth, will lead Penn State to a series win.
My Prediction: 28-28, 10-13 Big Ten
Best Case Scenario: 47-9, 19-4 Big Ten
Worst Case Scenario: 9-47, 3-20 Big Ten
The Shape of Success:
There needs to be some sort of improvement this season. Winning a bit more in the nonconference season would be nice, but I am mostly focused on the Big Ten record here. Purdue hasn’t had a winning record in conference play since 2014, and if they are going to be taken seriously on the national landscape, that needs to change. The Big Ten is probably the weakest of the power conferences in softball, so there isn’t as much of a climb to be considered a serious conference contender. I don’t expect Purdue to be a conference contender in the next couple of seasons, but I do expect that Purdue rises toward the middle of the conference and hopefully wins at least one game in the Big Ten Tournament. If this season looks a lot like last season, there may need to be some questions about who is leading this team in 2024.