Up-and-coming Boilermakers making noise in Big Ten
The crunch of boots carving a path through snow and ice is no longer enough to drown out dreams of cleats clacking on cement at the Women's College World Series.
Most clearly represented in Michigan's championship three seasons ago and recent repeat trips to Oklahoma City for Northwestern and DePaul, cold-weather schools are doing their part in spreading softball's reach beyond the sport's roots in Arizona and California.
As significant as those high-profile success stories are, in the long run the growth of softball's middle class in the Midwest and Northeast is just as significant. As programs like the one Kim Maher is constructing at Purdue come of age -- with performances like last weekend's, when the Boilers traveled to Baylor's Getterman Stadium and beat thee nationally-ranked Bears -- parity becomes more than a buzzword in college softball.
Not that the revolution won't be without some complications.
"It was in August and I was in a sweatshirt and sweats, and I didn't think I was going to be able to survive," Arizona native Dana Alcocer joked about her first experience in Big Ten country after transferring to Purdue from Pima Community College. "But yeah, it's pretty cold in the snow. And I don't know how to drive in it or deal with the ice."
Purdue won't play its first home game this season until March 19, more than 30 games into its schedule. Even that date may prove to be an overly ambitious in a city where the average low in March is a bat-jarring 31 degrees. But at BCS schools like Purdue, at which the sport only officially joined the fold in 1994, softball, which was formerly an afterthought, has been the beneficiary of modest support from athletic departments capable of providing the necessary resources to support an accelerated growth curve.
"I don't think weather should be an issue anymore," Maher said. "You have schools that have incredible indoor facilities. It's a simple game when you think about it; it's pitching, catching, throwing and hitting. You can do that indoors and outdoors. Do some of the warmer schools have an unfair advantage? Sure, but what team is not going to have an advantage over another? What it comes down to is getting a wonderful group of young ladies that come together and have a goal and do whatever it takes to accomplish that goal."
Maher understands both sides of that coin as well as anyone. A California native, she starred at Fresno State before joining the coaching ranks and winning a national title under Diane Ninemire at Cal. She couldn't do much about bringing the weather with her from the West Coast when she was hired by Purdue before the 2006 season, but she did bring the expectations born of a career spent as a part of programs with championship traditions.
When Maher took over at Purdue -- a program with nary a win in the Big Ten tournament and seven consecutive losing league seasons before finishing 12-12 in 2005 -- culture shock was unavoidable.
"Any time you get a new coach, you get nervous about it, because you don't know their coaching techniques, their styles, their opinions, their likes and dislikes," senior Ashley Hall said. "Each coach has their own style. Our coach before [brought] a very relaxed, lackadaisical approach; she liked to have fun, that was her main focus. Coach Maher, she likes to have fun but she's very, very focused on winning and doing well -- getting each player to perform at a level they've never been able to perform at before."
Both Hall and Maher admitted that there wasn't instant chemistry between coach and team, but things started coming together midway through Maher's second season. After a 6-20 start, Purdue finished a long road trip to California with six consecutive wins and carried that momentum into conference play. Maher's team finished 10-9 in the Big Ten and knocked off Iowa for the program's first win in the conference tournament.
"Her first year was a little rocky," Hall said. "There were a lot of people that didn't want to change their old ways. But after she had a year under her belt, she got used to us and we got used to her. Last year, like halfway through the season, everything clicked. We understood what she meant by things; she understood how we felt about things. Now it's like we have no question whatsoever that she's always going to be backing us up; she's always on our side. And we have a trust, an unspoken trust that a team has with their coach."
Now a senior with a quick wit and quicker feet, Hall is a shining example of the potential natural resources waiting to be discovered by coaches like Maher. Hall set program records for hits and steals last season and posted a .383 batting average and .482 slugging percentage despite playing -- and playing third base at that -- with a shoulder injury that required offseason surgery. Limited in drills until early January while rehabbing the shoulder, she's hitting .429 with three steals and keys an offense hitting .318 overall.
An Indiana native from the small town of Noblesville, Hall grew up in an athletic culture dominated by basketball. Softball was an afterthought wedged between the end of basketball season and the start of summer hoops. But for Hall, an all-state selection her junior and senior seasons in high school, softball trumped the state's pastime.
"It is mostly basketball, and it does kind of stink that you get overlooked a lot," Hall said. "And a lot of times people are like, 'Oh she's from the Midwest, she can't really play ball.' But it's fun to be able to prove them wrong."
There are three Californians and an Arizonan on Purdue's roster this season, but there are also six players from Indiana, two from Ohio and one from Illinois. Maher and assistant coach Linda Garza plucked Alcocer from junior college power Pima when they needed pitching, but they also lured prep standout Suzie Rzegocki across the border from Illinois. As more and more college programs in nontraditional softball territories offer motivation -- both in the inspirational form, as role models, and tangible form, with camps and clinics -- more and more girls like Hall and Rzegocki will find their way onto Division I rosters.
"There's always going to be little hotbeds of softball," Maher said. "Indiana we still need to develop a bit in softball. It's getting there, when we have camps we have local kids that come to camps and want to learn. You have the Chicago area; there's a lot of talent up there. It's now where you look at other programs and they have a lot to offer and [recruits] understand you don't have to be from the Pac-10 to get to the College World Series, they're willing to go somewhere else and take a chance on a school to help that school get to the College World Series."
Whether or not Purdue can give seniors like Hall a once unimaginable trip to Oklahoma City this season remains to be seen. The Boilers will need both Alcocer and Rzegocki to step forward with consistent innings to make a move on programs like Northwestern, Michigan and Ohio State at the top of the Big Ten standings. Advancing to the NCAA Tournament might be a more realistic objective, but the fact that either is in the discussion in a place like West Lafayette, Ind., is a sign of the times in college softball.
"My sophomore year, there were people getting sick before games when we were playing Michigan," Hall said. "They were nervous about it. But it's not so much there anymore, because we know we can compete with anybody."
Graham Hays is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. E-mail him at Graham.Hays@espn3.com.
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