LEXINGTON, Ky. — Nick Mingione brings it up often. He draws on a specific memory from one of the two seasons he spent at Kentucky a decade ago, well before returning to the Wildcats to become baseball coach this season.
“I remember standing right there in that coaching box in 2006,” Mingione said Monday, turning and pointing toward third base at Cliff Hagan Stadium. “And I remember looking down that left-field line and seeing all the people lined up. And I remember thinking this is an awesome place.”
That was the last time the program was host for NCAA Tournament regional — until now.
Doing things that haven’t been done before has been Mingione’s line seemingly every time he has cameras focused on him and microphones in front of him. Kentucky advanced to a regional final in the program’s past four appearances — 2006, 2008, 2012 and 2014 — but the Cats are still searching for a regional win.
Mingione’s squad will have to get past Indiana, North Carolina State and Ohio if it wants to secure a spot in the Super Regionals where a match with Louisville might await. Mingione has begun his scouting of Ohio, which Kentucky opens with at noon ET Friday.
The Wildcats were in good shape to secure one of eight national seeds that could have brought a Super Regional to Lexington, but the team stumbled down the stretch, losing four of its last six games. Still, though, Mingione made his pitch for a national seed. He brought up Kentucky’s number of SEC wins, its strength of schedule, wins against RPI top-50 teams and a few more factors.
The NCAA selection committee didn’t deem it enough.
“I don’t know if disappointing is the right word,” Mingione said. “The thing I wish was that I could be in those meetings, and just hear what they really, what’s important to them. I really wish I could do that. Unfortunately, I was not in there. It was one of those deals where we didn’t do enough apparently to earn one of those. I’m at peace with that.”
And as several NCAA Tournament teams were watching the selection show together, the Wildcats went through a morning practice and an afternoon lift. Mingione was asked why he didn’t pull the team together in front of a TV to find out its postseason fate.
“If I’m the guy that tells them, ‘Hey, we’re focused on our game goals and our main focus is on us’ … If I’m the guy that tells them that over and over and over, and then we throw this big huge party to see who we’re going to play, it just didn’t make sense to me,” Mingione said. “I’m not wired that way and I don’t want them to be wired that way.”
Starting pitcher Sean Hjelle said it was hard not to read the postseason projections on his phone or hear commentators talk about it. Reliever Logan Salow said the Wildcats assumed they might be on the outside looking in at a top-8 seed.
“We wanted the national seed obviously and we put ourselves in pretty good position,” Salow said. “But when it came down to it we just didn’t win. A couple extra wins here and there may’ve got it for us. We’re not worried about that. Our goal was to host, and we’re still hosting.”
And that’s something the program has been waiting on for 10-plus years.
“I had the vision of this happening,” Mingione said. “And to our players’ and our coaching staff’s credit, here we are.”
Watch: Kentucky coach Nick Mingione reacts to NCAA Tournament regional draw
Lexington Regional Bracket