As he watched the late night/early morning victory that sent Kentucky to its first baseball super regional, former UK coach Keith Madison reflected on how far the program has come.
“To be honest, I couldn’t help but sit there and think, ‘Wow, this is what I always dreamed it would be,’” he said Wednesday.
UK’s 10-5 victory over North Carolina State on Monday night/Tuesday morning featured high stakes, a record crowd (5,005) and engaged fans cheering or heckling every call of ball or strike. Everyone in Cliff Hagan Stadium seemed swept up in an emotional wave.
“It was almost like the crowd was part of them,” Madison said of UK players, “and they were part of the crowd.”
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It figures to be more of the same this weekend in the super regional at Louisville. Two highly regarded teams playing for a spot in the College World Series. Fans for both teams heating up the competition to a love-hate boil.
“This is going to be the best postseason matchup in college baseball in the history of the state of Kentucky,” said Madison, who plans to attend. “I wish every baseball fan in the state could be there and see this because it’s going to be high drama.”
Madison, who coached UK’s team from 1979 through 2003, said the home park had a four-foot tall outfield fence in his first season. Instead of a “We Are UK” proclamation on the right-field wall, there could have been a “We Are Confused” message, what with an eight-foot-tall chain-link fence behind the outfield fence. Madison recalled a ground rule about a ball hit between the fences being in play. “So it was bizarre,” he said.
How well-attended were home games? Madison chuckled, then said, “Early in the season, when it was cold, it would be basically parents, girlfriends and pro scouts.”
Until this week, Kentucky’s modest baseball success had not included advancement to a super regional.
Madison and another former UK coach, Gary Henderson, cited several factors.
Before 1999, the NCAA baseball tournament didn’t have super regionals. The format included fewer teams (48), which were bracketed in eight six-team regionals. A smaller field meant for fewer Southeastern Conference teams receiving bids.
Madison said UK’s team in 1988 (38-25) was good enough to advance to a super regional, had that been the format.
Henderson said UK was good enough to get to a super regional in 2006 (44-17), 2008 (44-19), 2012 (45-18) and 2014 (37-25).
A sport like baseball, which can reward a soft hit (swinging bunt) and punish a line drive (directly at a fielder), makes it unpredictable. The Cincinnati Reds’ Scooter Gennett hits four home runs in a game?! Baseball elevates the importance of good fortune.
“You have to catch breaks, and that’s what it is,” Henderson said. “The baseball gods are looking after you.”
Henderson, who was UK’s head coach from 2009 through last season, now works as the pitching coach at Mississippi State. He’ll be interested in the UK-U of L super regional while helping lead State in its super regional at LSU.
After UK defeated N.C. State, first-year coach Nick Mingione acknowledged how Henderson and the former staff recruited good players.
“I’m really pulling for them,” Henderson said of the Wildcats. “I think there is a tremendous group of kids, of personalities, of winning-type of personalities. I’m really proud to have recruited them and coached them and really happy for their success.”
When asked if he thought he was assembling a team that could advance to a super regional and contend for a spot in the College World Series, Henderson chuckled and said, “Any time you’re in the SEC, your goal is Omaha. To see those kids on the verge of being able to do that makes you proud to be a small part of it.”
Kentucky at Louisville
Friday: Noon (ESPN2)
Saturday: Noon (ESPN)
Sunday: Noon (if necessary, TBA)