By LARRY VAUGHT
Kentucky softball coach Rachel Lawson didn’t need long to realize that baseball coach Nick Minion is “borderline crazy.”
When he came up with an idea for a Kentucky Softball/Baseball Fan Day before the 2017 season, she thought he was even crazier for suggesting they also have a free clinic for youngsters.
“Then the turnout was incredible,” said Lawson during the second annual Fan Day Sunday that attracted an even larger crowd. “We saw throughout last season how supportive the fans were. Our (NCAA) regional crowds were phenomenal.
“I never expected to many fans would come out (for Fan Day) and definitely didn’t expect that so many fans would come who did not have a child in the clinic. That is really cool. It was also unexpected, and quite touching, last year to see brothers, sisters, cousins and others all doing the same things at the same time. You don’t get to see that too often with boys and girls. At that age there is not that much difference physically in the kids, so it’s great to let the boys and girls mingle together in the drills and have both softball and baseball players working with them.”
Mingione was not surprised by the fan turnout in 2017 or the one Sunday. He told the crowd that UK season baseball tickets were almost sold out, the biggest sign of how Mingione has energized the UK fan base thanks to last year's 43-win season and final top 10 national ranking.
“We are eighth in all four preseason polls, so that means we are one of eight teams they think can get to Omaha (for the College World Series),” the coach said. “Our guys want to be national champion and if all goes right, we will be in Omaha.”
With Lawson and Mingione, it just seems like things go right. Mingione noted that his team had a 3.2 grade-point average last semester. That’s the kind of mark Lawson’s teams regularly reach.
The baseball coach stole a page from Lawson’s playbook and encouraged his players to get involved in community service like the softball players do. Last semester the baseball players had over 200 hours of community service in a 3 1/2-month span.
Both coaches also have a contagious personality.
“I am so excited that we now have a baseball team that can keep up with softball,” Lawson joked while talking to fans during the clinic.
But she’s right. Lawson’s teams have been so good that the softball success is almost taken for granted. Mingione wants his program to reach the same level.
Lawson returns all her position players from last year’s Super Regional team. She has to revamp the pitching staff. Mingione brings back one of the SEC’s best pitching staffs from UK's first Super Regional team but has to replace four position players lost to graduation or the draft. Both have a preseason All-American – shortstop Katie Reed and outfielder Tristan Pompey.
Lawson thinks UK can now challenge powers Alabama and Florida to lead the SEC in attendance.
“We are going to make sure we catch them,” she said. “We are going to be on national TV 12 times this year. Last year it was nine. ESPN will have over 750 (softball) games on one of their platforms and I am so glad to have a team that ESPN wants to show.”
Mingione’s team will be showcased nationally a lot as well as part of the 800 games shown by ESPN and its partners. The Cats have 12 games set to be televised nationally. I also like that Mingione is having regular promotions (fireworks on Friday, kids running the bases after games on Saturday and player autographs on Sunday). That gets kids to the ballpark and, more importantly, encourages them to come back.
It was fun watching so many youngsters interact with the UK baseball and softball players Sunday. One of the most popular players was 6-11 pitcher Sean Hjelle. He shared jokes with the players in his small group and must have posed for more than 100 pictures.
He’s really good, but the players like one thing — “He’s so tall.” If I heard that once, I heard it 100 times.
“I just think it is great that all the kids get to see these players in a setting like this,” Lawson said. “And my players really enjoy it, too. They are just big kids, too, and they like getting out here and being able to joke and kid around with the kids while also helping them some with their skills.”
It was just a win-win. Everybody from the participants to the UK players to the parents to the fans without kids had a great three hours.
So maybe Mingione isn’t quite as crazy as Lawson and some others once thought. If anything, he’s actually pretty smart for realizing that something like this can only add to the fan base for both UK baseball and softball.
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