How Kentucky's 'Get Weird' mentality got the Wildcats to the MCWS

Kentucky makes history with its first Men's College World Series run (0:31)

Kentucky makes history by scoring its first MCWS run on a Nick Lopez RBI single. (0:31)

OMAHA, Nebraska -- The Kentucky baseball's team flight to Omaha was delayed last week, which gave the Wildcats more time to ponder an issue of great gravity.

Should they pack the cowboy hat or a stuffed animal?

The hat was a prop for the "Cowboy Up" ritual the Wildcats practiced when their hitters were facing two strikes, but they weren't sure how effective it was at super regionals, so they debated whether to ditch it. Ryan Hagenow, a relief pitcher for Kentucky, has final say on these matters because as the dugout captain, he is the arbiter of a vital initiative: "Get Weird."

It was implemented by Wildcats skipper Nick Mingione after Kentucky scuffled in a home series loss to Kennesaw State in March. Mingione said his players were putting too much pressure on themselves. He wanted them to play with more energy, loosen up and have fun.

The Wildcats rattled off a six-game winning streak after that team meeting, won a school-record 46 games and landed in the program's first Men's College World Series.

Saturday was peak weirdness.

In the middle of their opening MCWS game, a tie score with No. 10 North Carolina State, pitcher Mason Moore was in the dugout wearing a fireman's hat and playing with a hand puppet. The game went into extra innings. Two Kentucky ballplayers stacked more than a dozen rally caps on top of outfielder Nolan McCarthy's head. A few minutes later, Kentucky eked out a 5-4, 10th-inning win.

Coincidence? Probably. But don't tell that to the Wildcats, who are having the season -- and the time -- of their lives.

"I know it's not traditional or whatever," Hagenow said. "But at the same time, we're not a Major League Baseball team. We're college kids, and the reality of it is that most of us won't play baseball after college. So we do what we can to enjoy it.

"I think if I was playing us, I would be annoyed, but we do it all for us. We're focused on us and what makes us play good, and we know that keeping the guys loose makes us play at our best."

Mingione obviously doesn't care what the stuffy baseball traditionalists think, either. He's as sentimental as he is analytical, stopping everything to individually congratulate each of his players after their super regional win over Oregon State earlier this month and dropping to a knee in the third-base coaching box to pray after Mitchell Daly's winning home run cleared the left-field fence Saturday.

The Wildcats' skipper, whose first head-coaching gig was at Kentucky, likes to tell his players that they are responsible for two things: How they play and how they help the team win in and outside of how they're playing. Or if they play at all. Mingione told the Wildcats, back in March, he could live with the results as long as they played hard and didn't play scared. He told them to decide who they were.

The Wildcats chose weirdness.

Two days later, in a game against Murray State, one of Kentucky's pitchers started wearing a pink fuzzy hat, and soon, the fans started wearing pink hats. Every game, when the first Wildcats runner reaches second base, the entire dugout mimics -- correction, mocks -- every move Mingione makes in the coaching box. One time, a player engaged in lengthy staring contest with a TV camera, and that took Mingione aback, but for only a minute.

"They get weird," Mingione said, "and there are some times I got to admit, though, when I'm in the third-base coach box and they're laughing and doing something and I'm scared to look over my shoulder. Like, 'What are they doing now?'"

Mingione gets weird, too. He draws ooohs and ouches from the dugout for standing still when line drives whizz his way at third. There's a post on X, formerly Twitter, of the coach recently taking a scorcher to the leg, with Mingione barely flinching.

"They stand in the box when the pitcher throws the ball at them, and they don't move," he said. "So I won't move. I'm in the fight with them."

This fun approach might seem like it was always natural for Hagenow, but he wasn't always this way.

He grew up in Knoxville, Tennessee, of all places, and was a rather introverted child. He figured if he stayed at home, he'd probably stay in the same friend group and never venture out. Hagenow was also one of the highest-ranked high school pitchers in the country.

When he came to Kentucky, he wanted to live up to his expectations, to help his team, and heaped a world of pressure on himself. He overthought everything.

"I went through some struggles and had some setbacks," Hagenow said, "and I've kind of been able, as I've gotten older, to separate my identity from the baseball field."

His brothers, who also played college baseball, helped him realize that he had an identity outside of baseball.

Now Hagenow is a cog, not the star, but he knows his role is big.

Even if it means carrying a Spider-Man doll on his shoulders. The stuffed Spidey belongs to Max May, the son of Matt May, Kentucky's longtime baseball publicist. Max loaned his stuffed toy to the team, and last week, as the boy stood in a hallway at Charles Schwab Field, he asked, "Is Ryan still taking good care of him?"

Hagenow sure is. But as far as that cowboy hat goes, it hasn't made an appearance in the dugout in Omaha.

He is open to many suggestions to help the team get weird, but Hagenow has his limits. Sometimes, a player will come up to him and ask, "Dude, why don't we all just start singing this song?" But he is anti-chant -- it's just too cheesy for him.

"'Not Afraid' by Eminem was a thing for a little bit that they wanted to do," Hagenow said. "I get a lot of ideas thrown at me every day. Some of it is just whether I'm feeling it or not. It's just random stuff. We've got a lot of creative brains on the team, that's for sure."

But if the Wildcats keep winning, who knows? Hagenow, and Mingione, are keeping their minds open.

"We love this," Mingione said. "This is where we want to be. This is what we want to be doing at this time, in this moment."