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SEC Championship was 18 years in the making for Nick Mingione

IMG_8756by:Daniel Hager05/18/24

DanielHagerKSR

Kentucky Baseball clinched at least a share of just its second ever SEC Regular Season Championship Friday night with its 17-7 win over Vanderbilt.

The Cats improved to 22-7 in conference play and can win the conference crown outright with a victory over Vanderbilt in the series finale on Saturday or a Tennessee loss to South Carolina in their series finale.

“I took a moment to soak it in after the game with the staff out there,” Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione said postgame. “They deserve it.”

The 2024 season marked Mingione’s eighth season at the helm. His tenure in Lexington has been up and down, but it’s never reached heights higher than it is now.

Mingione spent two seasons (2006-07) at Kentucky as an assistant coach under former head coach John Cohen. During his first stint in Lexington, he was apart of the 2006 team that won the program’s first ever regular season championship. He then spent eight seasons as an assistant at Mississippi State before it was announced that he would be hired as Kentucky’s new head coach in 2016.

“This is an opportunity I’ve dreamed about for more than a decade,” Mingione said at his introductory press conference back in 2016. “From the moment I first stepped foot on campus I knew it would be a place I could call home. What an incredible feeling to be back. Kentucky is a special place and this baseball program has had great moments over the years, including some that I have been a part of. I can’t wait to get to work on building toward an even brighter future.”

His tenure at Kentucky started off hot in 2017, as the Cats opened eyes all around the college baseball world by finishing 43-23 (19-11) and securing Kentucky’s first ever Regional victory and Super Regional appearance. Mingione was named SEC Coach of the Year in his first as a head coach.

However, the next five seasons never came close to matching the success of his first. From 2018-2022, Kentucky posted a 135-106 (56 win%) record while going 44-76 (37 win%) in conference play. In that span, the Cats never finished higher than fifth in the SEC East and Mingione’s leadership became a topic of conversation amongst fans.

After years of disappointment, the tides in the program began to turn at the 2022 SEC Tournament in Hoover. Kentucky just squeaked into the field, as they finished two games better than Missouri to earn the 12th and final spot in the tournament.

Kentucky shocked the conference by knocking out five seed Auburn in the first round, eight seed Vanderbilt in the second round, and four seed LSU in the third round before falling to one seed Tennessee in the semi-finals. Seeing what could be done at the school, players and coaches began to completely buy in what could possibly happen in Lexington.

With no real expectations entering the following season, the Bat Cats came out in 2023 and finished 40-21 (16-14), securing Kentucky’s first 40 win season and plus-.500 conference record since Mingione’s first season. Kentucky hosted and won its second ever Lexington Regional before falling to eventual champion LSU in the Super Regional.

Kentucky’s success lit a fire under the staff, players, and fans alike as they realized that special things could happen at Kentucky if everyone bought in. All of those years of ups, downs, excitement, and disappointment led to 2024, Mingione’s most important season as a head coach.

Prior to the 2024 season, Kentucky had never made back-to-back NCAA Tournaments. Not only are they heading to their second consecutive in a few weeks, but the Cats won their second ever SEC Regular Season Championship, will be at least a top-three seed in the upcoming SEC Tournament, and will host a Regional and Super Regional if the opportunity presents itself.

“I understand what this means to so many players in our program,” Mingione said postgame Friday night. “Some of our former coaches and staff members. There’s a lot of people that helped build this and there’s a lot of people that deserve credit for this.”

As Nick Mingione took in the sights and sounds of the historic moment, he was showered with a Gatorade bath by the players.

“Those are the best,” Mingione said. “It just means you won a championship and really my favorite thing to do is to watch them celebrate and to watch them experience pure joy. Never understood that really until I became a father. When you see your kids have that kind of excitement and joy, there’s no better thing to witness.”

Minge is up to 255 career wins (third-most) at Kentucky, just three behind Gary Henderson’s 258 (second-most). He took over a program in 2016 that had made just six career NCAA Tournament appearances in the tournament’s 77 year history, and is now on the verge of leading his team to its third in his eight years.

Friday’s historic game was 18 years in the making for Nick Mingione, who has established himself as one of the best to ever lead the program.

Although the head ball coach always says that wins expire at midnight, this one may just linger a little longer.

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2024-06-12