Following the Kentucky Wildcats’ 6-2 loss to Louisville on Saturday, ending UK’s baseball season one step away from the program’s first trip to the College World Series, veteran players Evan White and Riley Mahan reflected on their season and praised the first-year coach who guided them through it.
Both players are among the Top 100 prospects in next week’s Major League Baseball draft, and both likely played their final game as Wildcats on Saturday.
They both said the future of the UK baseball program is in good hands with Nick Mingione.
After 14 years as an assistant coach, Mingione came to Lexington a little less than a year ago as the new leader of the Wildcats. He led his team to a 43-23 record and the second-most league wins in program history. He got UK to an NCAA super regional for the first time.
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On and off the field, his players bought in.
“One of the things I challenged our guys to do was to create a family atmosphere,” Mingione said. “And we’ve done that.”
The UK coach started Saturday’s press conference by saying that this team has changed the lives of himself, his wife, Christen, and his young son, Reeves.
Asked a few minutes later how these Wildcats had changed his family’s lives, Mingione took several seconds to compose himself before giving an emotional, nearly three-minute speech about his team.
“Change is hard. It’s really hard,” Mingione said, his eyes shining with tears and his wife looking on just a few feet away. “And when you ask 18-to-23-year-olds to change… Adults, if you can just do a true, hard evaluation of yourself right now, and you get a whole bunch of new bosses — totally new bosses — and they basically come in and they ask you to change basically everything in your life.
“And it started with changing what kind of students they were. We made guys go back in CATS (tutoring) and study hall that hadn’t been in years. And we just told them we were going to hold them accountable for every single move they made. And when you do that, and it starts in the classroom, and then the decisions they make off the field, and then the decisions of how they’re going to practice and approach each day with enthusiasm and effort. And when you get a bunch of guys where there’s no previous relationships ever built. Right? This is not a deal where we’re on the phone for three and four years in advance recruiting them, and we can tell you all their parents’ names, and we can tell you who their brothers and sisters are, and what their parents do for a living, and their dog’s name and their girlfriend’s name … we couldn’t do that.
“This is just walking into a room with whole new men and basically asking them, telling them, ‘Hey, by the way, I care about you, I’m going to love on you, but I’m also going to hold you accountable.’ It’s really, really difficult, because, trust, it takes time. And it’s more of a compliment to be trusted than loved. And it takes time. And these guys, I can look all of you in the eye and tell you, I’ve never seen them give one day away. Not one day did our coaches ever go to the locker room and say, ‘Man, they just didn’t give us everything they had today.’
“This is a group — I mean, you saw it — I showed them a video of our dugout the very first pitch of the game against North Carolina (in the season opener). (J.B.) Bukauskas throws a 97 mile an hour fastball, Zach Reks swings at it, and he crushes it into center field (for a single), and our dugout is celebrating. And right before this series, I showed them. And if you looked in that dugout, to the very last out, our dugout was exactly the same. And to get 18-to-23-year-olds to do that, and to hold them accountable for every move they make, you should’ve just seen the amount of tears they had. Every single one of those kids could not be better gentlemen to my wife and my 2 ½-year-old. So, when you talk about changing someone’s life, they changed mine.”