The entertainment has stopped abruptly in West Lafayette after some desultory seasons from a once vivacious Purdue program. The fleeting memories of the Boilermakers’ “Great Entertainer” team of 2007 that produced some mind-boggling numbers, specifically sixteen matches of three or more goals despite not advancing out of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament, have faded further into distant memory as the most recent incarnations of Purdue Soccer have done little to get the pulse racing. The twelve losses the program ended 2010 with were the most since 1998, and things were little better last year, as the club went 7-11-2 and tumbled further down the RPI rankings.
After tallying double digit wins from 2000 to 2009, Purdue has now won just thirteen matches combined over the past two seasons. Head coach Rob Klatte has been desperately searching for solutions to stop the atrophy of the program, with little success the past two years. Considering Purdue got a bit of a late start with their soccer program in comparison to the vast majority of their Big Ten rivals, Klatte’s done a fine job of building the Boilermakers up over the years with six NCAA Tournament appearances, a Big Ten Tournament title in 2007, and a Sweet Sixteen appearance in 2003 among the honors collected in West Lafayette.
But despite usually having a team in the upper crust of the Big Ten, Purdue was just one of many Big Ten sides that couldn’t break Penn State’s death grip on the league title. All of which of course made 2007′s twenty win season all the more exciting as the explosion of the talents of Riverso, Eyorokon, and Okoroafo among others seemed to indicate the beginning of a new dawn in West Lafayette. That season ended stunningly though in the second round of the NCAA Tournament in a shootout defeat to hated rivals Indiana, a team the Boilermakers had crushed, 7-0, just a few weeks earlier.
The loss seemed to take something out of the program. Eyorokon graduated, while Okoroafo and Riverso would be solid over the next few seasons without ever reaching the giddy heights of 2007. More importantly, replacements and new blood for the high octane offense never quite materialized. The program were left at the altar the season after despite finishing third in the Big Ten table, being one of the teams whose bubble burst at the end of the season. In 2009, the program posted a nearly identical record and got the benefit of the doubt from the NCAA Selection Committee but suffered another traumatizing NCAA Tournament defeat, this time to the relative minnows of Central Michigan.
Seemingly still suffering a hangover from that shock defeat, Purdue’s 2010 Big Ten form was brutal, with just one win in their final eight and a long line of horrid defensive performances leading to a disappointing eighth place finish. Klatte certainly rang the changes with some severe roster turnover before the 2011 season with new additions galore to try and shock the team out of its malaise.
Of course, such a shakeup also brings questions of whether a team can gel in time to make an impact, and Purdue struggled early on, winning just one of four, though that win was against a strong Toledo, and the defeats were also against formidable opposition. Less impressive was a loss to a poor USC team and a draw with Cal State Northridge, both at home. The worries only piled on through the first few weeks of Big Ten play. The Boilermakers had the first three in the league at home but promptly blew it by going 0-2-1 on that homestand, severely damaging their postseason hopes in the process.
Needing to rally, Klatte’s side would go on a stretch of three wins in four, including a crucial win against Ohio State, which was followed by a 8-2 destruction of rivals Indiana. Back in the postseason hunt, Purdue would limp across the line though. Defeat to Michigan was followed by a 5-1 pounding at Wisconsin. A 2-1 win at Minnesota left Purdue the slightest of chances at making the Big Ten Tournament heading into the final day of the season. Problem was that those hopes rested on beating champions Penn State on the road. Try as they might, Purdue simply couldn’t overcome PSU’s firepower, and saw their season end with a 2-0 defeat.
If 2010 wasn’t worrying enough, 2011′s ninth place finish and poor RPI finish are likely enough to send some serious alarms ringing through West Lafayette as supporters wonder if this Purdue program is just going through a painful hiccup or if the trend is more towards serious decline.
Defensive deficiencies have been the modus operandi for Purdue as of late, as the Boilermakers have struggled to contain some of the very threatening opposing offenses. While Purdue wasn’t as faulty defensively as the epically bad 2010 unit, they were still far from great, shipping twenty-two goals in the league in eleven games, or two a match. Needing a Herculean offensive effort to compensate for the team’s porous defense, Purdue would appear to have gotten one on paper, with their eighteen scored in Big Ten games good enough to put them in the top half of the league. It’s only after a closer glance that you realize that eight of those goals came against Indiana in an 8-2 bloodbath. Purdue scored just ten goals in the club’s other ten league games, which goes a long way in explaining how the Boilermakers ended up out of the postseason again.
After some serious roster churn over the past few seasons, Purdue has more shuffling to do with the graduation of four senior starters, as well as the loss of some key senior reserves. While there are some accomplished newcomers making their way onto campus, the club’s lack of a single All-Big Ten selection last year speaks volumes about the lack of star power in West Lafayette these days. It also speaks to fears that Purdue’s time in the sun as a regional force may be over as well.
Replacing an established starter like Carianne Betts was never going to be easy, but Purdue’s Clara Kridler fared well all things considered, starting every match in goal as a sophomore, the first keeper here to achieve that feat since 2008. Kridler was kept busy though by her porous backline, being forced into the second highest single season save total in program history. In pole position for backup duty is senior Yana Lyon, who didn’t see a minute in two seasons before getting mop-up duty in five games last year. With Kridler nursing an injury in the Spring, Lyon got valuable minutes that should help her in her bid for the backup role.
She’ll have to fend off the challenge of true freshman Caitlyn McCullough though, with the new keeper one of many recruits from the Ohio Elite club to make their way to West Lafayette this season. Betts should improve this year with a season of starting experience under her belt, but that improvement will only go so far if the backline in front of her doesn’t shape up.
Klatte mixed and matched with his rearguard last season, with four players seeing time in the starting lineup for eight games or more and sometimes in different positions on the back four. There’ll be more shuffling this season with the loss of a pair of starters from that group. Alexis Tryba made a huge impact as a rookie with three game winning goals but couldn’t quite match that set of heroics for the rest of her career. The Carmel native began the season as a center midfielder but eventual was stuck into a central defense role to try and shore up the lagging backline. Another lost senior, Brookley Rogers, began the season at center-back but was shifted to right-back towards the end of the season. Rogers again led the club in minutes, playing every minute in eighteen of twenty games last year.
Junior Jordan Frick will likely step into the leadership role after starting every game last season at full-back. Frick made her runs down the line count last year as well, with her four assists tied for second best on the club. A potential partner out wide is classmate Shae Desmond, who started thirteen games last season and could also play further up the field on the wing in midfield. Senior Jessica Warren will likely be moved back into central defense after finishing last year in midfield. With six career goals, the versatile Warren is also a threat in front of goal. Classmate Marta Lynch was hobbled by injury for much of the first half of the season but started eight games down the stretch in the middle and looks likely to reprise that role again this year.
Senior Tayler Francel and junior Rachael Kimack, both reserves last season should also be in contention for major minutes this year as Klatte tries to replace the lost production. The club also adds highly touted recruit Melissa Bomberger to this unit. A U.S. youth international at U15 level, Bomberger has also impressed at ECNL level with Ohio Premier Eagles and in regional ODP action and could be one of the club’s best hopes for the future defensively. Given the loss of some key players and a lack of star power, this group might struggle for widespread improvements this season.
Naturally, with some of the mixing and matching in the defense, some of the side effects were an unstable midfield, that wasn’t helped really be a switch in midseason from 4-3-3 to 4-4-2. Besides Tryba, if you take into account her appearances in central midfield, the club also loses the services of Lauren Montenegro and Kellie Phillips. Montenegro was one of the club’s best players in recent seasons, earning All-Big Ten honors in her first three seasons, including First Team distinction as a sophomore. Trying for such honors in all four of her collegiate seasons, Montenegro fell short but still finished having started nineteen games and all forty-one possible in her Big Ten career. She was hardly prolific but still finished with eight goals and seven assists in her Purdue tenure.
Phillips was the club’s leading scorer last season with eight goals, splitting time in the midfield and up front, which was hardly a shock given her offensive proclivities in previous seasons. Considering that Phillips scored all eight of those goals in league play, including a hat trick against Indiana, to not have received All-Big Ten honors seems a bit ludicrous. The Arizonan’s two assists also took her career total up to twenty, good enough for second all-time at Purdue.
Much personnel-wise may depend on whether Purdue goes 4-3-3 or 4-4-2 this year. Regardless of how they line up, the Boilermakers will likely go with Mollie Kuramoto in the middle as one starter. The junior enjoyed a breakout year as a playmaker last year, leading the team in assists with five. On the left, Chinyelu Asher, a sophomore, looks likely to feature after fifteen starts as a rookie. Asher was a revelation as a freshman, racking up three goals and four assists to make a name as one of the club’s most promising prospects. Desmond could be a partner on the opposite flank in a 4-4-2, though she’d likely be used for width at right-back in a 4-3-3 formation given a lack of offensive punch from the junior. Classmate Hadley Stuart had three goals last year as a sophomore and could also be an option out wide on the right.
There’s plenty of young depth to take advantage of as well. Sophomores Taylor Niewoit, Barbados youth international Soraya Toppin-Herbert, Jackie Kurgan, and Jennifer Stoot all saw varying degrees of minutes off the bench and should be eager for more minutes this season. Joining the hopefuls is freshman Emma Lancaster, another promising product out of the Ohio Elite program who has impressed in ECNL competition. Kuramoto’s a potentially nice fulcrum in midfield this season, and Asher is a promising youngster if the club goes 4-4-2. It’s a little thin after that, but this could still be one of the team’s least troublesome units.
Again, a lot depends on how Purdue sets out formation-wise this year. The club does have some major losses to recover from, regardless of formation though. Besides Phillips, the club loses Laura McCalla, Katie Leinart, and Kaitlyn Blacha, who combined for eighteen starts, mostly on the wings last year. McCalla was expected to be a big hitter offensively after looking the part in three big seasons at UAB but was mostly a non-factor last season, tallying just two assists on the year. Leinart was another who underwhelmed as a senior, having tabled nine goals and seven assists in the two seasons before, the Wildwood native was held without a point, making just five starts last year. Blacha only scored twice but made them count, notching the game winner against Ohio State and also scoring against Missouri.
The unquestioned leader of the line this season will be sophomore Alex Hairston, who was arguably the club’s top freshman last season, starting all twenty games and scoring six goals. Hairston had three goals in the league and three game winners and will be looking to increase her haul this year but will undoubtedly be a marked woman after last season’s performances. If the club goes 4-3-3, Asher could feature as the left winger, while Stuart might go right, though the latter hasn’t shown much of a cutting edge yet. Sophomores Devon Beckwith and Anna Thyen saw limited duty off the bench last season as rookies but may be pressed into more minutes given the losses this year.
Also keep an eye on junior transfer Jordan Pawlik from Louisville. Pawlik played a big part in the Cardinals’ successful season last year with three goals and four assists and can also play in defense, but given the Boilermakers’ questions on offense, they may well use her in attack. Hairston’s a nice focal point to start with, and Asher would be nice in a 4-3-3, but depth is limited after that. Pawlik hitting the ground running could be a big boost for this unit.
I’m not sure the mojo is quite as bad for Purdue as it seemed in the last offseason, where the club basically drafted in an entire new team from newcomers, but the overall direction of the program has seemed to have dipped and stalled out after the success of the end of the last decade. There’s some nice young talent on the roster like Hairston, Asher, and Kuramoto, but at the same time, Purdue still looks to be falling further and further away from the very top of the league. The losses of Montenegro and Phillips chip away at the midfield and attack, while the club still has to prove it can stop somebody defensively.
Purdue probably has a puncher’s chance at the postseason if some of their better recruits come through immediately but don’t seem hot favorites for a Big Ten Tournament spot at current. Another dismal year like last season could have Klatte sweating a bit on his future with the club.