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CLIMBING THE LADDER: 2024 Kentucky baseball built upon and furthered the path started by 2006 team

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Cole Parke
Kentucky players dog pile after winning their game against Oregon State letting them advance to the College World Series. Kentucky beat Oregon State 3-2 to win the Lexington Super Regional and advance to the 2024 College World Series on Monday, June 10, 2024, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Cole Parke | Staff

After winning a share of its first regular season SEC Championship since 2006, the 2024 edition of Kentucky baseball drew several comparisons to the team 18 years before it.

The glaring similarity from both teams is that neither were not supposed to be anywhere near the SEC Championship before they actually won it. In fact, in 2006, the Wildcats were picked to be dead last in the SEC by most predictions.

Kentucky players hold up NCAA trophy after their victory over Oregon State. Kentucky beat Oregon State 3-2 to win the Lexington Super Regional and advance to the 2024 College World Series on Monday, June 10, 2024, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Cole Parke | Staff (Cole Parke)

Despite projections, Kentucky went on to have a 20-10 conference record and defeated No. 11 Georgia on the road at Foley Field to clinch the regular season title.

“These players that have been at Kentucky for the past few years have been at the very bottom and scratched their way to the top of the best league in America,” Kentucky head coach John Cohen told UKAthletics after the win. ”It’s been something amazing to watch and I’m proud to have been a part of it.”

In 2024, however, the Bat Cats were projected to be middle of the pack or lower in the SEC as most viewed their run the season prior as simply a fluke and something that couldn’t be replicated with such heavy roster turnover.

Once again, despite the predictions, the Wildcats finished with a 22-8 conference record, which broke the record for the most conference wins in school history, and culminated the year with a game two victory over Vanderbilt to clinch a share of the regular season crown.

“I’ve just gotten to the spot where you watch the guys go about their business every day, you just want all the success for them,” Kentucky head coach Nick Mingione said. “You just want it for them because no one will ever be able to take it away from them.”

Aside from the obvious symmetry of just winning at least a share of the title, the makeup and road to get to that point for then head coach Cohen and current head coach Mingione were also very similar.

Neither skipper walked into a championship caliber team. Both had to withstand some not-so-pretty baseball in order to build up to those championship moments. As a result, both teams on the field played with a chip on their shoulder as they were well aware of the outside noise and doubt about their capabilities.

“Those two teams, their competitive spirits, so similar,” Mingione said. “Just individuals that are so tough and competitive.”

Kentucky Pitcher Mason Moore walks to the dugout after striking out a batter to end the inning. Kentucky beat Oregon State 3-2 to win the Lexington Super Regional and advance to the 2024 College World Series on Sunday, June 9, 2024, at Kentucky Proud Park in Lexington, Kentucky. Photo by Cole Parke | Staff (Cole Parke)

In 2006, the Wildcats entered the SEC Tournament as the No. 2 seed and went 0-2, losing 4-2 to South Carolina and 16-10 to Georgia. The 2024 edition of the Bat Cats was able to get a win in the SEC Tournament as the No. 3 seed, but still came up short as the Cats were eliminated by South Carolina.

Then the paths deviated as, in 06, Kentucky hosted a regional at Cliff Hagan Stadium and was stunned in game one, losing 3-1 to Ball State. Despite the opening game loss, the Wildcats fought their way back to the championship game, but came up short against College of Charleston, losing 7-4 and ending their season.

While the final chapter for the 2006 team was written in the regional round, the 2024 team swept through the Lexington Regional with a perfect 3-0 record and headed to Super Regionals, which it hosted for the first time in program history.

In that Super Regional, program history was made once again as the Bat Cats punched their ticket to Omaha and the Men’s College World Series after defeating Oregon State in two games, marking the first time UK had ever made it to Omaha. It became the final SEC school to do so.

“My heart is filled with gratitude,” Mingione said. “So proud of these players, coaches, staff, former players, former coaches, former staff members that have just poured so much into this program.”

After winning the program’s first game on the biggest stage in the sport in walk-off fashion, the 2024 season came to an end after losses to Texas A&M and Florida.

While the 2024 season will live long in the minds of fans who witnessed it — and permanently find a home in the history books — the 2006 squad will be right there in history alongside it, even if the success has been forgotten by many or diminished by the NCAA Tournament upsets.

Both times Kentucky was projected to be nothing by those who know the sport best and both times the Cats used grit, determination and character to pull off what seemed impossible.

Looking at it another way, 2006 was a historic season for the Cats. 2024 saw them go even further and accomplish what the 06 squad couldn’t. While Kentucky fans hope it won’t take another 18 years, another team will come along and do what the 24 squad couldn’t and cement itself in history right alongside it.

If college baseball is a ladder, the 2006 Kentucky team with Cohen started the climb. Mingione and the 2024 squad continued it and got so close. Now, Kentucky just needs a squad to get over the final rungs and put the Cats on the top of the mountain for the first time in program history.

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About the Contributors
Jonathon Bruner, Assistant Sports Editor
Cole Parke, Sports Editor

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