The Kentucky Wildcats won their first regional in school history last year and the program possesses as much momentum as any in the country. Optimism is at its zenith in Lexington, thanks in large part to the enthusiasm generated by second-year head coach Nick Mingione, who guided the Wildcats to 43 wins in his first season at the Kentucky dugout helm while being named Southeastern Conference Coach of the Year as well as National Coach of the Year. A new $49 million ballpark that is scheduled to be completed in time for the 2019 campaign is being built, serving as another indication of how dedicated the program is to baseball.
The Kentucky Wildcats entered the 2018 season ranked eighth in each of the six national polls. One of the reasons Kentucky will be strong once again is the presence of junior starting pitcher Sean Hjelle. The 6-foot-11 native of Minnesota is the reigning SEC Pitcher of the Year (the first in Kentucky history) after going 11-4 with a 3.89 ERA in 2017. More impressively, he went 7-1 with a miniscule 1.90 ERA in 10 SEC starts. Opponents hit just .186 against him and struck out 61 times in 66 1/3 innings during league play. Joining Hjelle on the mound are returners Justin Lewis, Zach Thompson and Brad Schanzer and newcomer Zack Haake.
Offensively, the Wildcats lost five key players from last year’s lineup but return junior Tristan Pompey (.361/.464/.541), who had 18 doubles, 10 home runs and 45 RBIs during his breakout sophomore season. Pompey is considered to be one of the top 10 college players available in this year’s draft. The younger brother of Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Dalton Pompey, Tristan is a switch-hitter with above-average power who was a Third Team All-American last year.
The Wildcats lost five key players from last year’s lineup but have a strong class of newcomers that are helping fill the voids. Junior college transfer Kaden Polcovich, who played at LSU as a freshman, should be a significant contributor as the season progresses. Freshman Trey Dawson is a talented defender at shortstop, while Troy Black’s bat should garner activity in the infield. Outfielder Ben Aklinski received raves for his glove work during fall practice and should hit enough to earn a starting job.