NU enters next chapter of competitive rivalry

Emily Badger

Over the last two seasons, right-handed hurler Gabe Ribas has arguably sweated more on the mound facing Purdue than against any other Big Ten opponent.

The junior was preparing to swallow a 3-2 loss in West Lafayette, Ind., a year ago when his offense tied the game in the top of the seventh – the final frame of a doubleheader game. Northwestern (12-16, 1-3 Big Ten) scored again on a two-out rally in extra innings, and Ribas went on to close out the game and hand the Wildcats what would be the first of two one-run wins in the series.

Oh, and NU needed a winning series that weekend to stay in the running for the conference’s last postseason tournament berth.

Flash back to a year earlier. Ribas went 8 1/3 innings on that very same mound, fanning eight Boilermakers. But the contest was decided in Purdue’s favor in the 12th, long after Ribas had left the game.

“For the two years I’ve been here, the most fun series is Purdue,” Ribas said.

Over those two years, he has seen eight games – two of them from his perch on the mound. Six of them have been decided by a single run, four in extra innings.

“A lot of times our postseason hopes sort of rest on Purdue – at least they did the last two years,” Ribas said. “Coming into this year, there’s still bad blood and you still want to beat them. If there’s anyone we dislike more than Illinois, it’s Purdue.”

The bad blood stems from the fact that the feisty squad from Indiana has put the Cats’ postseason hopes in jeopardy two years in a row.

But this season, the conference schedule has pitted the two teams against one another in just the second conference series of the season, eliminating some of the pressure. And for the first time in three years, the Boilermakers (11-14, 4-2) will be playing on NU’s turf.

Ribas gets his third shot Saturday, and he doesn’t intend to settle for a no-decision, or even a one-run nail-biter.

“When you’ve played close series for two years, it makes you really want to bear down and beat them,” he said. “I’m tired of making it close. We just have to come out and really play hard and make it big.”

NU coach Paul Stevens minimizes the rivalry theory, but even the diplomatic coach can’t deny that this weekend’s conference home opener has the potential to be one of the best matchups of the season.

Over the past two seasons, the two teams are an even 4-4 against one another.

“Purdue’s a very, very competitive and aggressive team,” Stevens said. “And I think that that kind of fits a lot of the personality of this team.”

One advantage for the Boilermakers: They bring a six-game winning streak to Evanston today. But streaking Purdue faces an NU offense that has scored 35 runs in the last four games.

And Purdue’s rotation may be overmatched against Ribas, Mike Nall, Ryan Bos and Zach Schara as well. NU’s staff ERA is almost one-and-a-half points lower than Purdue’s.

In the end, the advantages will likely even out to produce another round of close contests.

“That’s just indicative of the Big Ten,” NU catcher Joe Hietpas said. “Every game – no matter who’s No. 1 in the conference, who’s No. 10 – every game is close. Both games in Illinois were kind of an anomaly.”

NU and Illinois traded blowouts downstate last weekend, a phenomenon no one expects to see against Purdue.

But a few big wins would suit NU rightfielder Brandon Ackley just as well as Ribas. Ackley, NU’s lone player from Indiana, brings the most personal rivalry into the weekend – he faces the school that once recruited him and players he played against in high school.

“It’s always just, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ A little small small talk, no trash talking,” Ackley said. “But then after we shake hands and say goodbye, I think both of us in our heads are thinking, ‘God, I hope I win.'”