Cats need trip to Omaha to validate program’s turnaround

At one point last season, it appeared the pieces were all in place for another historic UK baseball season.

Riding a school-record 19-game winning streak to open the season, opposing Southeastern Conference coaches and players couldn’t help but think the Cats were going to contend for their second straight conference title.

But then the Cats lost. Then they lost another one. And before head coach John Cohen knew it, a second consecutive dream season crumbled into a nightmare. A once-explosive offensive team was reduced to little more than a team treading water and trying to stay out of the SEC cellar.

If the Cats want to be taken seriously as a legitimate baseball power, they need to do more than win a conference title — they need to make the trip to Omaha, Neb., the annual site of the College World Series, in the next two to three years.

Think I’m setting the bar too high? The UK players certainly don’t.

“Winning the championship (in 2006) was by far the brightest moment in my career so far, but this is just not going to be complete unless we get to Omaha,” junior outfielder Collin Cowgill said. “Obviously we all want play well and be successful, but really my focus is to get there and compete for a World Series.”

Winning the league title two years ago was a great foundation in building UK into a legitimate baseball school, but the Cats can’t settle for one great year every five or six seasons. They need consistent, competitive ball clubs year-in and year-out if they want to rise to the status of SEC powerhouses like Vanderbilt and Mississippi State.

The Cats were on target to follow up their first conference title last year, but then a host of problems — mainly injuries and a weak non-conference schedule — came back to haunt the Cats midway through the season.

“One of my close friends and mentor, Ron Polk, always said that the deal in our league is about injuries. If you can stay healthy, then you will be alright,” Cohen said. “I didn’t believe him until a year ago when we didn’t have Scott Green and Collin Cowgill. I thought that was a big factor for us.”

He’s right in one sense: Losing two of the most talented Cats derailed much of their hopes for making it back to postseason play.

But injuries happen to every club. They’re part of the game, and you would be hard-pressed to find a single baseball team that doesn’t lose an everyday position player or pitcher for a period of time.

If the Cats do manage to keep most of their talent on the field this year though, watch out, because UK has the players to make a serious run to the Cornhusker state. Ever since Cohen took the helm five years ago, he has gradually been building talent at every corner of the dugout.

Green is a pro star in the making, and Cowgill and senior outfielder Sawyer Carroll have proven over the last couple of years that they’re the cream of the crop as far as college talent is concerned. Don’t forget about senior hurler Greg Dombrowski either, whose sinker could make even Alex Rodriguez smack into three groundballs a game.

With all that talent in place, a trip to Omaha weighs heavily on how well the Cats are playing at the end of the season.

A favorable early-season schedule once again sets up for what looks like a long winning streak. But then comes the treacherous SEC. If the Cats can escape conference play with a winning record, they should make it into the round of 64.

And from there? We’ll just have to see. Cohen has assembled the pieces. Now it’s up to his players to put the puzzle together.

Eric Lindsey is a journalism senior. E-mail [email protected]