LEXINGTON, Ky. — Cliff Hagan Stadium has transformed this week.
The 3,000-seat venue now features room for 4,300 with temporary bleacher additions down the third-base line and beyond the left field fence. It’s not only a physical transformation to host this weekend’s NCAA Regional, but also a metaphorical one.
“This is the first step,” Kentucky coach Nick Mingione said. “It’s not good enough just to host it. You’ve gotta win it. It’s like I told the guys, ‘There’s always another level.'”
Kentucky climbed from one level to the next over the course of the season with hosting a regional being the latest. Mingione captured SEC Coach of the Year, starter Sean Hjelle was named SEC pitcher of the Year and Kentucky’s 19 SEC wins were second-most in program history.
Kentucky takes on Ohio to open the Lexington Regional at noon ET Friday. Hjelle will be on the mound for the Wildcats, Mingione announced Thursday.
The stadium expansion, although temporary, represents what comes with winning. It’s a postseason stage that only four current Wildcats have been on, and the first regional Kentucky has hosted since 2006.
“I just had them kinda look around the field and say, ‘Hey, check out these bleachers. Oh, look at that sign right there. Oh by the way, they painted the NCAA sign on our field.’ They’re going to notice things, that’s what our guys do,” Mingione said. “They learn and pay attention.”
Senior shortstop Connor Heady said Cliff Hagan Stadium looks like a “whole different ballpark.” Speaking of whole different ballparks, Kentucky’s success is coming as a new stadium is under construction about a mile away.
The $49 million project is set to be completed by the start of the 2019 season. Mingione has said it will be one of the “premier college baseball facilities in the country.” Kentucky athletic director Mitch Barnhart gave an update on the stadium at the SEC spring meetings.
“We’ve got a huge hole,” he said with a laugh. “It’s a mess, but it’s good.”
Barnhart was asked if Kentucky’s success this season helps justify building a new stadium.
“Exactly,” Barnhart said. “When you’re not winning, they sort of look at you and go, ‘Why did they build that?’”
But now no one seems to be questioning it. The Wildcats are winning and have a chance to make their first super regionals appearance.
It’s the progression of a program, like it’s stadium, under transformation.
“From the first day (Mingione) said we want to win a regional, we want to win a super regional and we wanna win Omaha,” Heady said. “We wanna win the whole thing. And now we’re finally at the point where it is within our grasp.”