WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. -
Entering the weekend, Purdue's season was on the line as the Boilermakers were on a seven-game skid hoping to sneak into the Big Ten Tournament as a 12 seed. The only thing standing in Purdue's way from making that happen was Nebraska. Prior to entering the final series of the 2017 season the Huskers were ranked fifth in the conference and singing a very different tune as it had won five-straight. Four of those wins came against Illinois and Northwestern, which between the two programs are a combined 6-0 against Purdue this season.
At some point in the week leading up to the series against the Huskers there was a decision made by the senior leadership about how Purdue would finish its season. Just like there was a decision made when Boo De Oliveira was named the fourth head coach in Purdue softball history. There was a conscious decision made to buy in and lay the foundation of a culture balanced on grit, family, discipline and fortitude that will define Purdue softball. Last week Kristen Hoppman, Katie Johnson and Lexi Valone decided that this year's team would not be defined by recent struggles, but by its resilience and ability to overcome adversity when its back was against the wall. The weekend started with a game that represented that exact notion.
The Boilermakers jumped out to an early lead thanks to an RBI single by Valone that would spark a three-run first inning. Johnson threw 3.1 innings before the Huskers managed to score a pair of runs, one of which was unearned, to pull within one. With the win in sight for Purdue, Nebraska did its best to play spoiler as it scored another run off of Kaitlynn Moody to tie the game. However, instead of giving into the shift in momentum, the Boilermakers fought their way to a walk-off victory as Maya Hughes took advantage of a defensive miscue on a batted ball by Alexa Binckes. The walk-off was Purdue's third of the season in Bittinger Stadium.
Game two was a grind throughout the contest as Nebraska took control early with two runs before a single out was recorded, opening the door for another clutch performance in the circle by Johnson. Over the course of Johnson's seven innings the Huskers tagged her for just two runs in order to take a 4-3 lead in the sixth inning. The Boilermakers responded just as they did the night before. The bottom of the lineup reached base and would eventually score the tying run off a single by Hughes and score the go-ahead run on a two-RBI single off the bat of Hoppman, lifting Purdue to a 6-4 advantage that would be solidified by a one-two-three inning by Johnson.
After thrilling victories in game one and game two, Senior Day was no exception as Purdue once again found itself trailing as the Huskers belted a leadoff home run in the first. However, Johnson settled in to hold Nebraska to just three runs over the course of seven innings while Purdue used a six-run third fueled by a three-run double from Valone to take control of the contest. Offensively the seniors were four-for-eight at the plate with a walk, four RBI and two runs scored.
Altogether, the seniors finished with stat lines that have Nebraska thankful they'll most likely never have to see them again. Hoppman finished the series five-for-11 to earn a .455 batting average that led to three runs batted in and a run scored. Valone led the Boilermakers with five RBI on the weekend thanks to four hits in nine at-bats, giving her a .444 batting average in the series. Then Johnson provided two key runs from the bottom of the lineup while also registering a hit and a walk against Nebraska.
Johnson's greatest impact came in the circle for Purdue as she enjoyed the greatest three-game stretch of her career as a Boilermaker. Over the course of the weekend, Johnson registered two complete-game victories, a 2.42 earned run average and six strikeouts over the course of 17.1 innings of work. Of her 17.1 innings she retired the Huskers in order 11 times, including a stretch in game three in which she recorded outs against 15 of the 16 batters she faced.
Their effort and mentality was contagious as Binckes, Hughes and Kaylah Hampton all hit north of .400 in the series. Hughes was the catalyst, hitting .417 with five hits in 12 at-bats, leading to six runs scored and an RBI while Hampton hit .429 with three hits and an RBI near the bottom of the order. However it was a freshman who stepped up to piece together the most impressive performance at the plate. Binckes finished the weekend six-for-nine with two doubles, two RBI and a run scored out of the four spot for Purdue.
The three victories shook the Big Ten standings as Purdue went from hoping to sneak into the tournament as a 12 seed, to jumping Penn State and beating Indiana and Iowa in a three-way tie to claim the nine seed in the tournament. The Boilermakers now seek redemption in game one of the conference tournament Thursday at 11 a.m. ET against Northwestern.
In their final games in Bittinger Stadium, the senior class provided a spark against Nebraska that could have impact beyond their comprehension. Underclassmen witnessed firsthand how a student-athlete competes when they're fighting not just for the postseason, but for the chance to wear the black and gold just one more time. Sunday, a record crowd of 1,089 fans including five youth softball programs saw one of their heroes drive in the go-ahead run in the bottom of the sixth after the Huskers had just regained the lead in the top of the inning.
If there's anyone who understands the magnitude of that moment it's Hoppman, who grew up watching one of her childhood heroes and now coach, De Oliveira, tear through the Big Ten as a catcher and a pitcher. It was watching De Oliveira lead the Badgers to the NCAA Tournament in 2002 and 2005 that inspired her to someday become a Division-I softball student-athlete. Now Hoppman, Johnson and Valone can say they've achieved the dream they all shared, and the display they put on this weekend was just a microcosm of what they have done all year long. They've led, they've inspired and they've set the standard for the Purdue softball program for years to come.