UK Baseball: What a Difference a Year Makes

Kentucky Sports Report continues its coverage of the road to the first pitch, as KSR's Matthew George gives a report from UK Baseball Media Day.

My, what a difference a year makes.

At this time last year, the Kentucky baseball team was projected to finish last in the Southeastern Conference.

But after an improbable season, which saw the team that finished dead last in the SEC in 2005 claim its first ever conference title in 2006, perceptions surrounding the Wildcats have definitely changed.

UK appears in three preseason polls, and is ranked as high as No. 23 by Picked to finish fourth in the SEC Eastern Division by the conference's coaches, Kentucky is now considered a significant force within what is arguably the best conference in America.

Yes, the expectations surrounding the UK baseball program have grown immensely. But they shy in comparison to the expectations the team has placed on itself.

"There is a climate in our program now where we are supposed to win," said 2006 SEC Coach of the Year John Cohen at Media Day. "I'm not being critical in any way, but it wasn't that way when we got here. We had to figure out a way and our players had to figure out a way to create a climate where we expect to win every time we step out on the field."

That's what the most wins (44) in 102 years of a team's history will do for a program.

That's what the most SEC wins (20) in school history will do for a program.

That's what being the only team to go from worst-to-first in subsequent years in SEC history, and doing so to claim the school's first conference championship, will do for a program.

But for Cohen, who is determined to turn Kentucky baseball into a perennial power, expectations have grown to the point where a conference championship is no longer enough.

"Our focus last year was SEC games, as it should be," Cohen said. "We dominated at home, but we didn't play as well as we wanted to in the tournament."

After winning the regular season title, the Cats went 0-2 in the SEC tournament. Picked to host an NCAA Regional, UK was unable to advance any further in the NCAA Tournament format.

Last year, the highs of regular season success were somewhat dampened by postseason shortcomings.

Now, Cohen said, UK wants to begin measuring its success in terms of the postseason.

"Winning the league was an incredible accomplishment for our players, and we want to be there all the time," Cohen said. "But I want our team to be playing its best baseball at the end of the year."

"I think anyone in our league would trade a league championship for the opportunity to play in Omaha," he said.

Yes, Omaha, the Mecca of college baseball and site of the NCAA College World Series, where eight teams compete in a double-elimination tournament to crown a national champion.

Those aspirations were echoed by catcher Sean Coughlin, who passed up an opportunity in the MLB draft to return to Kentucky for his senior season.

"We didn't really run out of steam last year," Coughlin said, "I just don't think we played to our potential when it came down to it. I think we were about two games away from Omaha, but we just didn't really play that well."

"As a senior, Omaha and a league championship are kind of my career ambitions," Coughlin said. "I've always wanted to go to Omaha since I was a little kid."

There's no greater sign that a college baseball program has arrived than the coach and players tossing out the word "Omaha" before the first pitch of the season is thrown.

My, what a difference a year makes.

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