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Baseball Wildcats had planned on playing for CWS championship this week

Baseball Wildcats had planned on playing for CWS championship this week

(Reks and his teammates face Louisville in an NCAA Super Regional - photo courtesy UK Athletics)

(Zach Reks and his teammates celebrate another Wildcat victory  – photo courtesy UK Athletics)

Sometime in the next 48 hours, there’ll be a dogpile in the middle of TD Ameritrade Park in downtown Omaha; the guys wrestling and wriggling in the middle of it, college baseball’s newest NCAA champions. We know it will be either Tigers from LSU or Gators from Florida and we also know this:  At some point during the season just now concluding, Kentucky beat them.

UK took the season series from LSU (although the Tigers got revenge at the SEC tournament) and beat the Gators in their series opener in Gainesville. But they fell just short of college baseball’s grand stage.

Nick Mingione wanted that for his team.  He wanted it so badly.  In fact, that was the plan all along, the Cats winning their way to Omaha, which doubles as college baseball’s land of Oz.  Turns out for the Wildcats, their yellow brick road ended in Louisville, where they lost to the Cardinals in the Super Regional.

They got there after winning the school’s first regional title, touching off a dogpile of their own in the middle of the Cliff Hagan Stadium infield.  Instead of diving in, Mingione was sitting on the top step of the dugout, trying not to cry.  He had done it all before – cheering, screaming, dog-piling – both as a player at Embry-Riddle and as an assistant coach at Mississippi State.

But now he’s a head coach and he wanted to soak it all in, this moment that he actually had envisioned.  It’s what he saw ahead for his program even before he shook hands with Mitch Barnhart, signed a contract and took on the challenge of changing UK’s status as the Only SEC Team That Hasn’t Made It To Omaha.

It almost happened. The Wildcats were two victories shy, which is why Mingione collected SEC Coach of the Year honors. Funny thing is, he told his players it was going to happen – before he ever met them.

In June of 2016, cell phones began going off throughout the UK baseball roster.  Players were hearing from their brand new coach, who sent them a message ending with, #Omaha.  They all knew, of course, what that represented. They just hadn’t allowed themselves to dream that dream.  Other teams, the ones that knew the joy of making it, have always wanted more.  The Wildcats wanted just a taste.

“You see it on social media all the time,” said second baseman Riley Mahan, “these teams… saying they wanted to get back to Omaha, stuff like that. That talk was nowhere to be found in our program. For me, that was frustrating.”

Nick MIngione (Photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

Nick MIngione (Photo courtesy of UK Athletics)

He wasn’t the only one.  “I never thought about Omaha last year,” said outfielder Tristan Pompey. “I never thought it was a feasible thing for us to do.”

Then the new guy arrived.

“When he called me,” said outfielder Zach Reks, “he said, ‘That’s our goal. We’re going to go to Omaha, have the best season of our lives. We’re gonna take care of business.’  I believed in him. It was hard not to believe in him.”

To Mingione, it only made sense.

“We’re the University of Kentucky,” he said. “We play in the toughest league in the country.”

In fact, he said it the day he was introduced to the media: “We will mention Omaha on a daily basis. We’re trying to get to Omaha. If you get to Omaha, you have a chance to win a national championship.”

At first, his players didn’t know what to think.  Not all of them were sold over the phone, as Reks was.  But slowly, they bought in.

“The more and more that we bought into what the coaches were trying to sell to us and teach us,” said pitcher Sean Hjelle, “the more that kept coming to us and the more and more we saw how invested Coach Minge was and the entire coaching staff was; the more we realized Omaha as a very real possibility for us.”

So real, they could almost touch it.  And then it was over.

After coming so painfully close – enough to where players and coaches alike were choking back sobs in the clubhouse after the final loss – Omaha is the new standard. Next season, they’ll play it one game at a time, sure, but the plan will be to do that 78 times.  Counting the regular season, the SEC Tournament, the NCAA regional and super regional, that’s roughly how many times they’ll suit up if they expect to win a national title.

The 2018 Season

The Wildcats celebrate the first regional championship in the history of the school (photo by Dick Gabriel)

The Wildcats celebrate the first regional championship in the history of the school (photo by Dick Gabriel)

It figures to be a grind from Opening Day.  This season, the Wildcats pounced on the rest of the league, racing out of the gate and swamping opponents with so much offense that they led the league in nine of the 12 major categories.  Their pitching was as strong as it’s ever been, with the 6-foot-11 right-hander Hjelle leading a weekend rotation and Logan Salow reporting from the bullpen when things got close in the late innings.

Hjelle will be back.  Salow, a senior, will not.  Neither will Mahan.  The move from shortstop, where defensively he was the league’s worst last year, to second, where the combination of his glove and bat made him the league’s best, may have saved his career. Mahan was taken in the third round of the MLB draft by the Miami Marlins.

Reks will be gone. So will fellow seniors Marcus Carson (centerfield) and Connor Heady (shortstop).  Like Mahan, all three enjoyed the best seasons of their lives.

And then there’s Evan White, one of the newest members of the Seattle Mariners organization, chosen by the M’s in the first round.  A wizard with his glove at first base, White committed just two errors – in three seasons of college baseball.  And he scooped up countless errant throws by teammates, saving them from suffering the hot embarrassment of baseball’s scarlet letter: E.

White also was the author of dozens of screaming line drives, so many that he was able to join Reks and Pompey among the top five hitters in the SEC.  In fact, each position player in the UK lineup turned in the best work of his college career.  It will be tough for Mingione’s next team to top that, much less match it.

Hjelle isn’t the only arm returning. Power pitching leftie Zach Thompson, recently anointed a freshman All-America, will be back, as well as fire-balling rightie Chris Machamer, both candidates for the weekend rotation.

Mingione’s first recruiting class is heavy on pitching and Zach Haake could be one of the first to emerge. Haake was 8-1 with a 2.52 ERA at John A. Logan College.

Offensively, Kentucky should benefit from the presence of a healthy T.J. Collette, a left-handed power hitter who spent the first half of the season rehabbing a serious knee injury; his lone highlight coming when he smacked a pinch hit, grand slam against Ole Miss.  When Collette takes batting practice, other players stop and watch. Leftie Brayden Combs redshirted this season and at 6-4, 230, should provide some pop as well.

The ’17 recruits include JUCO transfers Troy Black, Alex Rodriguez and Trey Dawson – all of whom will compete for time at the vacated middle infield spots. They’ll run into veteran Luke Becker, who likely will return from third to 2nd base, where he started most of last season.

Three more JUCOs will be among the candidates for two outfield spots, but nobody is moving Pompey out of the starting lineup.

With veterans Tyler Marshall and Luke Heyer returning, Kentucky seems set at third base. Behind the plate, Troy Squires and Kole Cottam give the Wildcats perhaps the best 1-2 combo in the SEC.

The upcoming baseball season will be the last one at the Cliff.  After that, the Cats will move into their new ballpark near Alumni Drive. They came within one victory this year of hanging another SEC championship banner beyond the leftfield wall; two wins shy of a College World Series pennant.  Those will be the goals again next season.

Only this time, the Wildcats won’t be surprised when they see that every text message from their head coach ends with, #Omaha.

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