Purdue Eyes An Elusive Big Ten Title
For more than 100 years, Purdue has not won a conference championship. There have been some painfully painful close calls and the Boilermakers even earned an NCAA tournament bid in 1987 after winning 36 games.
But still no Big Ten title since 1909 for Purdue.
It is a point of frustration for coach Doug Schreiber, who started at second base for the Boilermakers from 1983-1986. He makes an uneasy comparison to the Cubs' own century-long championship drought, but hardly wants the Boilermakers to be known as lovable losers. Schreiber believes this year could be the year Purdue breaks through and wins the Big Ten, or at least returns to regionals for the first time in 24 years.
"I feel we can compete this year and in the years to come with the type of talent we have coming in and returning," Schreiber said. "Winning the conference championship and going to regionals is something that will be celebrated and appreciated here when it happens."
With much of last year's team that won 37 games—tying a program record—and finished one game out of first place returning this season, Purdue enters 2012 as the favorite to win the Big Ten title. The Boilermakers have a strong core in catcher Kevin Plawecki, third baseman Cameron Perkins and closer Nick Wittgren, all of whom are projected to be taken in the first 10 rounds of the draft this June.
But Purdue's path to the Big Ten championship gets more difficult this spring. Nebraska's move from the Big 12 to the Big Ten brings a more traditional college baseball power into an already crowded league. For three straight years, the Big Ten regular-season title has been decided by one game or fewer, and three different Big Ten teams have finished second in an NCAA regional.
Still, Schreiber is happy to have Nebraska in the league.
"They should be able to compete right away," he said. "We welcome that. It makes the Big Ten stronger."
And with Plawecki leading the way, the Boilermakers will be a big factor in the collective strength of the league. Plawecki was named first-team all-Big Ten after hitting .341/.429/.436 last spring. He is viewed as Purdue's best draft prospect and, despite scouts' concerns about his arm and lack of power, Plawecki has a chance to be the Boilermakers' highest draft pick since the Dodgers took righthander Josh Lindblom in the second round in 2008.
Plawecki is content to wait until later in the spring to worry about the draft, but has been working to improve his throws to second base during the offseason. He is trying to be more consistent with his throwing motion and footwork.
"Hopefully it will reflect in the game," he said. "I feel like I've come a long way this winter."
Confidence From The Cape
Plawecki and Wittgren spent the summer in the Cape Cod League, playing together for Hyannis. Wittgren said having a familiar face behind the plate was especially helpful.
"It was real nice going in to have a catcher who understands me and knows what I have," Wittgren said.
He struck out 29 batters in 19 innings and recorded nine saves.
Hyannis coach Chad Gassman said Wittgren's toughness set him apart.
"You can't faze him," Gassman said. "Put him in any situation, he expects to get out of it. You could put him in with the bases loaded, 3-0, no outs, he's expecting to get out of it."
Wittgren is expected to slide back into the closer's role at Purdue, where he saved 12 games last year. But Schreiber said he hasn't ruled out the possibility of using Wittgren as a starter sometimes. Though the Boilermakers' entire weekend rotation is still with the team, righthander Brad Schreiber, last year's Sunday starter, will miss this season after having elbow surgery in the offseason.
"I'd like to keep (Wittgren) in the closer role," Schreiber said. "He has that type of mentality, but if need be he's more than willing to step in and maybe even do both."
Schreiber will have to quickly determine how to best use all the weapons at his disposal. Purdue plays a difficult nonconference schedule that includes Connecticut, East Carolina, Auburn and a four-game series at Wichita State before the start of Big Ten play. Purdue will also visit UCLA for a three-game series at the start of May.
Plawecki is excited to be playing such a challenging schedule.
"We're not a young group," he said. "All of us want to have a harder schedule. It makes the games a lot more fun.
"We're not scared to play those schools. I don't know if everybody else feels that way, but I sure as hell don't (feel scared)."
The schedule will also enable the Boilermakers to quickly forget about the disappointing end to last season, when they finished one game away from a regular-season championship and exited the Big Ten Tournament two victories shy of winning the automatic NCAA tournament berth.
But Plawecki says the past just adds fuel to the fire as Purdue prepares to head south on Feb. 17 and resume its 100-year pursuit of that elusive Big Ten championship.
"We let it drive us a little bit," he said. "Over the past two years, after reflecting, we all agree on the fact we're so close, especially with most guys coming back—it's very possible to do."