Wildcat Debut: Kentucky Ready to Shine in First College World Series - By Dr. John Huang

Left to Right: Reeves Mingione, Nick Mingione, Mitchell Daly, and Johnny Hummel meet with media prior to Kentucky's College World Series debut (photo credit: Dr. John Huang) Left to Right: Reeves Mingione, Nick Mingione, Mitchell Daly, and Johnny Hummel meet with media prior to Kentucky's College World Series debut (photo credit: Dr. John Huang)

The Kentucky Wildcats are riding high in their first-ever College World Series appearance. If their time on the dais in the pre-tournament presser is any indication, they’re locked and loaded and ready for lift off.

As the excitement continues to percolate to a fever pitch, you can’t ignore the fact that this is a completely new experience for the program. How much of a disadvantage, if any, is it being a first timer? Walking a fine tightrope of “being glad to be here” while simultaneously “taking care of business” is no small task for players and coaches alike.

“I would say we’re all just ready to get playing,” said senior infielder Mitchell Day. “You know, I think definitely this first practice knocked the jitters off for a lot of people. I think everybody was just excited to get on the field, feel the dirt, [and] see the scenery around.”

The scenery includes the expansive confines of Charles Schwab Field, what head coach Nick Mingione called the Mecca of College Baseball. The newly minted National Coach of the Year acknowledged that the pilgrimage to Omaha is no small feat. Arriving at the College World Series was a bona fide team effort.

“I have surrounded myself with amazing people,” Mingione said. “You do not win this award unless you are just covered and surrounded by amazing people. It starts with my wife and my son, and it goes all the way down to our coaches and strength coaches and athletic trainers, our student managers, our athletic director, our administration, [and] our fans.”

While dishing out accolades, Mingione also was quick to implore the good citizens of Omaha to hop on the Big Blue bandwagon.

“This is your team,” he exclaimed. “We are first timers. We want to have a great experience. We want to be lifted up. I’ve seen this city, and I’ve seen the people of this place lift up opposing teams.”

However, the Wildcats are aware that they are not the only team vying for the attention and affection of Omaha’s residents. With seven other programs in the mix—most all of them traditional powers and repeat visitors—the competition for fan support will be fierce. As Jack Diesing Jr. of College World Series of Omaha, Inc. noted, “I think it’s always great. I wouldn’t call Kentucky an underdog, but it’s always good to have a new face, a new team that hasn’t been here before. But we support all teams. And this is one of the things that makes Omaha special over the years: We do our best to make every team feel like they’re the home team.”

Unlike Kentucky’s skipper, North Carolina State head man Elliot Avent has plenty of College World Series experience. In twenty-eight seasons at the Wolfpack helm, Avent sports a 1,036 – 613 record with three CWS appearances (2013, 2021, 2024). When asked about the effect of experience on the Omaha big stage, he minimized the importance of a coach’s influence.

“I think it’s all about players personally,” he answered with a grandfatherly grin. “I think coaches—I think we get in the way—way more than we help deliver results. I think our job is along the path of all fall and all preseason and all season long. I think that’s when age and experience may matter with some things you do.”

When asked about Kentucky’s aggressive style, Avent said something really intriguing. He acknowledged that you simply can’t prepare for a style like that this late in the season. You have to prepare to defend that in the fall, and in January and February.

“If you’re not prepared for the style of baseball that Kentucky plays now, you’re not going to get prepared this week. So I think we catch the baseball. I think we’re pretty good defensively. I think we hold runners pretty good. I think we’ve got some experience. We may not be ready, but we’ll find out.”

Forget about the pedigree, the distractions, the previous experience, and the fan support. It’s all going to boil down to drive and execution.

“We’ve worked so hard to get to this position,” said Kentucky reliever Johnny Hummel. “And we’re just ready to go out there, compete, and hopefully bring home a national championship.”

Now THAT would be a storybook ending for a magical year. The Cats and Wolfpack square off on Saturday at 2 p.m. ET. The game will be televised on ESPN.

Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist, military veteran, and award-winning author. He currently serves as a reporter and sports columnist for Nolan Group Media. You can follow Dr. Huang on social media @KYHuangs and check out all his books at https://www.Amazon.com/stores/Dr.-John-Huang/author/B092RKJBRD