BLOOMINGTON, IN- Purdue head coach Mark Wasikowski didn’t put any expectations on his team when it came to wins and losses in his first season at the helm. Rather, he chose to focus on improving the culture, trusting that wins would follow once that foundation had been laid.
It’s easy to understand why he made this choice. The 2016 season was a trying one in West Lafayette, what with a 10-44 overall record and 2-22 mark in Big Ten action, ending in longtime head coach Doug Schreiber resigning.
The job ahead of Wasikowski was pretty big. It certainly wasn’t going to be an overnight turnaround, so it strikes as a prudent approach to focus more on process than results at this stage of the rebuilding process.
When it comes to getting his desired culture in place, Wasikowski counts that as a success of the 2017 season.
“I’m extremely satisfied with the culture we’ve established,” he said in the aftermath of his team’s exit from the Big Ten Tournament. “That was the goal for year one. That was the mission at the very beginning of this thing, establish a culture that we can build upon. Without a culture established, you’ve got nothing.”
However, if one had to set results-oriented goals for Purdue’s 2017 season, it seems likely that a good majority of them would have been met.
In 2016, the Boilermakers didn’t win any Big Ten series and they didn’t win a series of any type until the last weekend of the season, when they took three of four from Cal State Northridge. By contrast, in 2017, they split their very first series of the year, a four-game set on the road against Texas State, and then didn’t have to wait much longer to win a series, as they took two of three from a quality Southeast Missouri State team on the road two weeks later.
The Big Ten wins weren’t far behind. After dropping two of three to Iowa to start Big Ten play, they took two of three from Ohio State on the second weekend of their league slate, their first conference series win since winning their series with Penn State to end the 2015 season. They followed that up with a series win over eventual regional team Indiana. Later, they collected a sweep against Illinois, their first Big Ten three-game series sweep since sweeping Penn State in 2013. And they ended the regular season on a high note by winning two of three on the road against Minnesota.
But wait, there’s more.
In 2016, Purdue won just ten games overall. The Boilermakers had equaled that win total in 2017 by March 18, when they completed a four-game sweep of Santa Clara on the road. Also, with ten wins in March and 12 wins in April, they also equaled or eclipsed their 2016 win total in two different individual months during the 2017 season.
By the end of the season, when they had qualified for the Big Ten Tournament in Bloomington, their first time getting to the event since winning it all and going on to host a regional in 2012, it was a rightful reason for celebration, particularly for those players who had been around for some of the low times in West Lafayette.
However, Wasikowski was quick to emphasize that while this team met some goals and perhaps exceeded the expectations some had set for them, they also left a lot on the table.
“It wasn’t about getting in (to the Big Ten Tournament) and everybody throwing a party because we got in,” he said. “There were some goals that were clearly met and then there were some goals that didn’t get met with our group this year. Some people would say that that’s a little bit of a reach, especially with where we were picked to finish, but we set our standards high.”
Very quickly, once their run in the Big Ten Tournament came to a close, the discussion turned to what’s next for the program.
The jump made from 2016 to 2017 was outstanding. In just one year, Purdue went from being bottom-dwellers in the league to a solid middle-of-the-pack club that gave opposing teams problems time and time again. The next step, the one that involves the Boilermakers becoming contenders in the Big Ten, is a much tougher step, and it’s probably one that’s going to take more than just another year.
As impressive as the jump was this season, there’s little denying that Purdue is still working with something of a talent gap compared to much of the rest of the Big Ten and the accomplishments of this season were done with a pretty young, inexperienced roster largely devoid of high-end talent among upperclassmen that’s had the luxury of being developed over time.
Consider that Purdue didn’t have any players selected in this most recent draft, and that only two seniors, part-time infielder Hayden Grant and pitcher Tanner Schumacher, had anything resembling significant roles on the team.
Furthermore, the core of the team was made up of talented underclassmen and fresh faces. Top power bat Jacson McGowan and top prospect Nick Dalesandro were both sophomores. On-base machine Evan Warden was a redshirt sophomore in his first season with the team after transferring from Morehead State. Leading hitter and center fielder Skyler Hunter was just a freshman, as were other regulars like Mike Madej, Bryce Bonner, and Milo Beam. Harry Shipley, who had a .405 on-base percentage and led the team with 24 stolen bases, was a junior, as was Alec Olund, who has played a big role for Purdue since making his debut in 2015.
It was a similar story on the mound. Staff ace Gareth Stroh was a sophomore. Top bullpen arm Ross Learnard was a junior playing in his first season with the program after transferring from Parkland College. Reliever Cameron Williams, also a junior, was also in his first year with Purdue after transferring from Angelina College. Reliever Dalton Parker was just a freshman, as was swingman Jack Dellinger. Of the most often used and most effective pitchers on the roster, only starting pitcher Tanner Andrews was a junior with multiple years of experience with the program.
All of that means two things. For one, it makes the accomplishments of the 2017 team all the more impressive. Second, it means that Purdue is going to have some enviable returning experience on the field, and if the incoming recruiting class proves to be anywhere near as productive as the last one, Wasikowski and his staff will probably see more competition for playing time come fall ball and spring practice than they’ve had at any point during their time on campus.
Among some of the key pieces that will be returning in 2018, there’s a palpable excitement to get back to work and see what they can accomplish with another entire offseason ahead of them.
“Just keep making steps forward,” said Learnard when asked what’s next for the program. “Just keep working every single day. Coach Waz (Wasikowski) always kind of says you either get better or you get worse every day, so we’ve just got to keep working every single day in the offseason and into the fall.”
McGowan had similar things to say.
“We’ve got to make sure that everyone that’s coming back is still working hard on and off the field,” he said. “Keep building, keep getting better. Having a young team coming back is a good thing and a bad thing. We’ve got a lot of steps to take.”
Wasikowski, as the architect of the turnaround process, was more specific about the needs moving forward and where his sights are set.
“We’ve already addressed some of our needs in the recruiting process,” he said. “The standard, I believe, in the Midwest, is Louisville at this point in time, and so if there’s a bully in the neighborhood, that’s the bully in the neighborhood. If anybody’s looking around this neck of the woods, those are the ones that are doing the best right now, so those are the ones with the target on their back. The objective is to be able to match, or better, whatever Louisville’s doing with their recruiting and what they’re doing on the baseball field. A lot of those things are controllable, and that’s our job with this coaching staff, to be able to match them in recruiting and start chipping away at what they’re able to do right now because they’ve got it rolling.”
That type of goal is going to take some time to accomplish, but already, the work the staff has put in is bearing fruit.
A member of the incoming recruiting class, six-foot-eight righty Hayden Wynja, was just drafted in the 30th round by the Atlanta Braves, but indications are that he is planning to report to Purdue in the fall. Not only does his being drafted indicate that he’s a high-ceiling arm that at least one team saw enough in to draft, but he’s what a scout or coach might call “projectable.”
Wynja, after being cut from his high school team as a freshman, grew ten inches between the spring of his freshman year and his graduation. The thought now is that as he continues to grow into his body, learns how to use his height to its full potential, and gets the benefit of a college strength program, he’ll mature into the full package as a pitcher.
For a program not yet in a place where they can recruit the polished near-finished product out of high school, these are exactly the type of players Purdue will likely be working to attract. And as a high-end project, he also gives the Boilermakers something they’ve largely been lacking since that 2012 team.
If the staff can hit on enough of these types of players, the wins will continue to come, and suddenly, those recruiting battles get easier to win. In turn, those goals that were not met in 2017 will come into view, and Wasikowski doesn’t mince words when he talks about what those goals include.
“The goal for the program is just to continue to get better, first off,” he said. “And then as we go, to win conference championships, and to advance and see what we can do further in postseason play with regionals and super regionals, with the intent of getting to Omaha. We still have our work cut out for us, we’re not close yet to some of those things. We are close with the culture we’ve established. That’s intact, and we’re excited about that. That’s a big step forward.”
When Neil Armstrong became the first man to walk on the moon, he uttered the famous phrase “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” and in Big Ten baseball, Wasikowski is playing the Armstrong role. In the grand scheme of things, as the program continues to build, any future trips to the NCAA tournament will be much bigger steps for Purdue than simply establishing a new culture, clawing their way back to respectability, and getting into the Big Ten Tournament, but given where they’ve been over the last few years, that seems like one giant leap indeed.