Experienced Core Group Leads Kentucky Baseball to SEC Title

Experienced Core Group Leads Kentucky Baseball to SEC Title

by Tim Letcher

On Friday night, the Kentucky baseball team claimed at least a share of the Southeastern Conference regular season title for just the second time in school history. The Cats pounded Vanderbilt 17-7 in seven innings, with every Wildcat knocking in at least one run.

The 2024 team’s success may have actually had its infancy two seasons ago. In 2022, the Cats won four of their last five games in the regular season to get into the SEC Tournament. Then, in Hoover, UK won three games in four days, coming up just short of making the NCAA Tournament.

Last season, Kentucky took another step forward, posting a 16-14 record in the league and hosting a regional for just the third time in school history. The Cats would win the regional and would go to the Super Regionals, losing to eventual national champion LSU in Baton Rouge.

A core group of players from that 2022 team still remain on the UK roster. The group includes catcher Devin Burkes, pitcher Ryan Hagenow, outfielder Nolan McCarthy and pitcher Mason Moore, among others.

This group has been through the highs and the lows during their UK careers. McCarthy remembers being taught how things should be.

“This program has been through a lot,” McCarthy said. “It goes back to my freshman year when the fifth-year guys like T.J. Collett and Jaren Shelby, they showed us all the ropes and what it’s supposed to look like. And that 2022 team was really special with that run at the end of the year. It all culminated together and just came through this year. It’s awesome, this feeling right now.”

Hagenow, who picked up the win by pitching two innings of scoreless relief on Friday, made sure to take in the moment after the win.

“It’s pretty surreal to me,” Hagenow said. “I haven’t quite soaked everything in. I’m going to try to do that tonight and not leave this field until I’ve taken this moment in.”

UK head coach Nick Mingione was proud of his team and was happy for them after Friday’s win.

“What a team. Just relentless. Just non-stop, keep coming and coming on both sides,” Mingione said. “Really proud of our guys for so many reasons. This team deserves it. From everything they do and the way they go about their business, this is a group of guys that absolutely deserve this and they’ve earned it.”

Mingione made sure to watch his team celebrate on Friday night because he knows that those moments are truly special.

“Really, my favorite thing to do is watch (the players) celebrate, to watch them experience pure joy,” Mingione said. “I never understood that until I became a father. When you see your kids with that kind of excitement and joy, there’s no better thing to witness than to watch your guys celebrate with pure joy and excitement.”

The Cats celebrated on Friday night, but they truly believe that claiming the SEC regular season title is just one step along the way to their ultimate goal.

“Hopefully it’s one little milestone along the way of something even bigger,” Hagenow said. “This team is really hungry, we’re not satisfied.”

Mingione knows that there are still goals to be met as well.

“If you were to ask them our ultimate goal is to be national champions,” Mingione said. “That’s what we want to do. This is not the ultimate goal, this was a goal and something they are happy that they have but they still have goals they want to accomplish.”

A core group of players that were part of a late-season charge in 2022 and a regional champion in 2023 helped UK claim just its second SEC regular season championship on Friday night. That same group would tell you that this is just the first step in accomplishing their ultimate goals.

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