LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – They say a coach’s attitude can be contagious. If that’s the case, first-year coach Nick Mingione’s Kentucky Wildcats baseball team might not need the aid of sleep until sometime in August.

The Wildcats are back in the NCAA Tournament, and will host a regional for the first time since 2006 when they open play against Ohio University on Friday at noon in Cliff Hagan Stadium. The last (and only previous) time Kentucky played at home in the NCAA Tournament, it was 2006 and Mingione was a UK assistant for John Cohen. 

“I remember standing right there in that (third-base) coaching box in 2006 and looking back and seeing people lined up in left field and thinking, ‘This is an awesome place,’” Mingione remembered this week, after learning his team’s tournament draw. “You guys heard me say in my (introductory) press conference, we’re going to win here. And I had a vision of this happening.”

Mingione might’ve had the vision, but it’s safe to say the Wildcats are ahead of pretty much everyone else’s schedule. Dust off the standing room, get out the temporary bleachers and get ready. UK narrowly missed a chance to host a super regional, but enters NCAA Tournament play having beaten more RPI Top 50 teams than all but four other NCAA Tournament qualifiers. 

The Wildcats are 39-20. After losing their first four games of the season (three of them at No. 2 NCAA national seed North Carolina), the Wildcats won 21 of 24 and went on to win 19 Southeastern Conference games (second-most in school history) and play for the conference’s regular-season championship on the final day of the regular season. They had the SEC pitcher of the year in sophomore Sean Hjelle, Mingione was the league coach of the year and the team led the conference in ten offensive categories.

More than that, they are a team that seems to exude “fun.” Even after some frustrating losses late in the season, Mingione said his meeting with the team after it lost in the SEC Tournament was one of the best he’s had with his players this season.

“I thought it was just a phenomenal meeting,” he said. “I told them this is my favorite time of year. In the SEC Tournament you saw some teams fighting for their seasons, right? Now, I told them, if they don’t love this time of year, they’re in the wrong locker room. Every single team is fighting for their season. It’s all on the line right now. I just love the way we’ve prepared, because that’s how we’ve prepared them, but at the same time, our season is on the line, and I love that.”

How's this for fun? Mingione, to encourage fans to come to today's noon game, has penned a get-out-of-work excuse letter for Kentucky fans.
You name it, this first-year coach loves it. He doesn’t even want to really entertain the thought that his team lost momentum in dropping four of its last five games.

“So, you guys have heard me say this before, I’m not a big believer in momentum,” he told reporters. “I just believe that every single day and every single pitch provides an opportunity. Right? . . . So my definition is how do you get confidence? You get confidence from skill acquisition. . . . Our team has a skill. We can win baseball games. We can win in different ways. We can win close games, we can win a blowout game. However we need to win it, we can win it. That’s why our team has confidence. Another reason we have confidence is our schedule. We’ve played some really good teams, compared to some other teams, and we’ve beaten a lot of them. So with that, you have to have a skill, and our team has proven that.”

Mingione knows, the NCAA Tournament brings a different feel – even at.home. With bigger crowds and more seats, it takes some getting used to. But Mingione said he’ll be able to draw on his experience in ’06 to help his players.

“I remember then it was different for our team, a different feel, a different environment,” he said. “So I’m really looking forward to getting our guys out here and explaining, none of that matters.”

Mingione promised in his introductory news conference to do things that had not been done in Kentucky baseball. Getting to an NCAA Super Regional would be one of them. The Wildcats could face rival Louisville if that happened, or even host it themselves if the Cardinals faltered in their regional. Mingione isn’t looking ahead, but did say he was surprised that Louisville fell to the No. 7 national seed after losing four of their last five. UK hung at No. 9 in the RPI despite its late losses.

Mingione said, “I wish I could be in those meetings,” when the NCAA is deciding the national seeds, but acknowledged that it doesn’t matter now. Only one thing matters to the Wildcats now – today’s game against Ohio.

“The most important game of our season is this one Friday,” he said. “I’ve told our players that. I don’t care about anybody else’s games. Our focus needs to be on us. So this will be a good exercise for our guys. They’re 18-22 years old, and want to talk about who is playing who in what regionals. I told them just think about your next left, your next practice. . . . We had an awesome practice today. I just loved our guys energy, enthusiasm, the way they’re bouncing around and flying around the field.”

It’s no surprise. Their coach is bouncing around, too. Kentucky, if it beats Ohio, would get the winner of today's second game between N.C. State and Indiana.

“I’m just so happy to have a regional back here,” he said.

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