In the wee hours of the night, something special went down at Cliff Hagan Stadium. Bolstered by a record crowd of 5,005 screaming fans, the UK Baseball team rallied to beat NC State 10-5 to advance to the Super Regional for the first time in school history. That alone is a remarkable achievement, but when you consider it came after UK lost to NC State on Friday and the Bat Cats had to win three straight games — including back-to-back victories over the Wolfpack — to do it, it’s incredible. Add in that all of this success is coming in Nick Mingione’s first year as a head coach, and you can understand why the team collapsed into a dog pile of emotions after the final out and Mingione was reduced to tears.
On the precipice of the program’s first Super Regional — which will pit them against archrival Louisville, nonetheless — regardless of what happens, what Mingione and the Bat Cats have accomplished this season is one of the biggest success stories in UK Athletics’ history; if they make it to the College World Series, it could be the biggest. Here’s why.
It’s not only Nick Mingione’s first year as UK’s coach, it’s his first year as a head coach period
As Kentucky fans, we’ve been blessed with some charismatic coaches, most notably John Calipari, but what a year for Nick Mingione. Last summer, Mingione accepted the Kentucky job at the age of 37, his first head coaching job ever. After his first press conference, it was easy to see why Mitch Barnhart took a chance on him. It’s impossible not to like Mingione. He’s down to earth, passionate, smart, funny, and reads people extremely well, one reason he probably connected so quickly with his players.
Mingione spent two seasons as an assistant at Kentucky from 2006-07 and has said several times that Lexington is the only SEC town he would bring his wife to during his seven years as an assistant at Mississippi State. Now, in his first season as a head coach, he was named Coach of the Year in the SEC, a huge baseball conference, and is taking his team to the Super Regionals for the first time in program history. No wonder he sounded so giddy on the phone this morning.
No one saw success coming this soon
Given last season’s struggles and the fact that this is Nick Mingione’s first year as a head coach, everyone – understandably – had guarded expectations for this season…except the team. Mingione took over a program that was coming off back-to-back subpar seasons and had only been to the NCAA Tournament three times in the past decade. The Cats were picked in the bottom half of the league in the preseason, started off 2-5, and didn’t break into the national rankings until week five. Now, they’re 43-21, only two wins away from tying the school-record 45 wins in 2012. Mingione found a way to not only connect with his guys early on, but push them to their limits and beyond, which is why he was moved to tears watching them celebrate last night:
It’s captured the excitement of a “basketball school”
UK has broken attendance records all season, and last night, a record 5,005 fans sat through a two-hour and sixteen minute rain delay to cheer on the team to victory, which came sometime around 1:15 a.m. I wasn’t there in person, but everyone who was raves about the experience, many ranking it among their favorites as a UK fan. That says a lot from a school that’s won eight national championships in basketball and is coming off one of the biggest upsets in the football program’s history. People always refer to Kentucky as a basketball school, and it likely always will be, but for the fans who stayed through the rain and well past midnight (including John Calipari), last night was a special moment, exactly the kind a program on the rise needs to break through.
It comes at the perfect time
I’m glad The Cliff got last night because soon, we’ll have another stadium to christen with memories. The Cliff has one more year of use until Kentucky’s new $49 million stadium opens in the fall of 2018, a much-needed upgrade that will put the Bat Cats on par with their SEC peers. In case you missed it all the times they showed it during last night’s broadcast — thanks, SEC Network! — here’s the rendering:
Kentucky’s new stadium combined with their breakout season is music to Mingione’s ears. Known as an ace recruiter, Mingione has already landed several big recruits in his first year in Lexington, and as time goes on, we continue to see why. Who wouldn’t want to play for this guy?
Mingione’s first season rivals John Calipari’s
Hear me out, hear me out. Calipari came to Kentucky as the best recruiter in college basketball; it was not surprising that he brought five-star players — whom he was already recruiting — with him. Playing for a proven coach like Calipari at a powerhouse program like Kentucky is a no-brainer. In college basketball, you only need five good players and, if you’re lucky, a few stars, to make some noise, which Kentucky definitely did in Calipari’s first season. Despite falling short in the Elite Eight, John Wall and Calipari instantly put the Cats back atop college basketball, which is where they’ve stayed ever since.
Contrast that with the UK Baseball team, which had some talent but was coming off years of stalled progress. After Gary Henderson resigned, the players put their faith in an enthusiastic first-year head coach who purposefully kept a grueling season-opening series vs. North Carolina as a litmus test. Bits of success snowballed into boulders of momentum, and now, they’ve accomplished something that no other team in the 121-year history of the program has…and they’re not done yet.
For all the reasons I’ve already listed, UK Baseball’s turnaround in Mingione’s first year as a head coach rivals Calipari’s first year in Lexington; if they make the College World Series, it could even surpass it.