There were nights, alone in his room at Spartanburg Methodist, when Kep Brown wondered if he would ever feel whole again. If the body that had made him a top Major League Baseball draft prospect would ever heal and he’d be able to play the game that he fell in love with as a kid.
The road that Brown took from Wando High School phenom to UNC Wilmington outfielder had as many twists and turns as a spy novel. There was a brief stop in Miami and then two injury-plagued seasons in junior college at Spartanburg Methodist before Brown finally found a home with the Seahawks.
UNC Wilmington (32-19, 13-8) will host College of Charleston (34-16, 14-7) in a crucial three-game Colonial Athletic Association series beginning Thursday night at Brooks Field. The winner of the series will in all likelihood secure one of the two first-round byes in next week’s CAA Tournament at James Madison.
The 2015 high school season started with so much promise for Brown. In February, he signed with the University of Miami — a perennial power in college baseball. By early April, the rangy outfielder was off to a furious start during his final high school season, going 15 for 29 through Wando’s first 13 games with six doubles, one triple and two home runs. That translated to a .517 batting average, .548 on-base percentage and a slugging percentage of 1.000.
Brown was widely considered to be the state’s top player with pro scouts predicting he would be a first- or second-round pick in the 2015 draft.
All that had changed by the end of April. Brown injured his achilles tendon celebrating a play during a game and watched helplessly as his stock with major league teams began to plummet. That June, the St. Louis Cardinals selected Brown in the 10th round with the 311th overall pick.
“That was disappointing,” Brown said.
He spent a week at Miami for summer school, but quickly realized that wasn’t the place for him and transferred to Spartanburg Methodist to get closer to his Mount Pleasant home.
After taking an awkward swing during a game the following March, Brown suffered another bizarre injury, partially tearing the labrum in his shoulder.
“Until I hurt my achilles I’d never had an injury in my life,” said Brown, who had surgery on his shoulder in June 2016. “I’d played year-round too. High School, travel ball, nothing had ever happened to me. Never had an injury. Now I was hurt again and both injuries happened in really weird ways.”
No matter how much time Brown put into rehabbing his shoulder, his body never felt right and he took a medical-redshirt season in 2017.
“There were some nights that year I sat out when I’d lay in bed and wonder ‘why is this happening to me and what did I do wrong,’” Brown said. “Those were some of the worst times because I’d never been away from the game that long. It seemed like no matter what I did or how much work I put into getting better, I just couldn’t get over that final hurdle.”
It was about this time that Brown came onto the radar of Wilmington head coach Mark Scalf and assistant coach Matt Williams.
“We knew what kind of talent Kep had,” Scalf said. “He had some injuries, but the talent was there if we were patient.”
Brown, who spent last summer playing for the Wilmington Sharks in the Coastal Plain League, committed to the Seahawks. He saw a chance for redemption with a powerful mid-major program.
“I needed a fresh start,” Brown said. “A lot of schools during the recruiting process will tell you what you want to hear and from the very beginning, coach Scalf and coach Williams just came at me with the total, brutal honest truth and that’s what I appreciated. I hadn’t heard a lot of that at other places. It just felt right when I came on my visit. I’m supposed to be here.”
Getting Brown back into game shape for a long college baseball season was the first goal.
“We needed Kep to be healthy again,” Scalf said. “That was our main goal in the fall. We needed him back in baseball shape so he could help us in the spring.”
After a sluggish start to the season, Brown, who has started 32 of 51 games for the Seahawks, has come on of late. He’s hitting .230 with four home runs and 19 RBIs.
“His approach at the plate has improved,” Scalf said. “Kep’s a really hard worker and we’ve continued to see him improve every day. He’s been a big part of the success we’ve had the last three or four weeks.”
Brown knows several of the players on the College of Charleston team and played with Cougars outfielder Luke Morgan last summer with the Wilmington Sharks.
“This is a huge series for us,” Brown said. “I played with and against a lot of those guys, so I know them pretty well. It always sucks losing to your friends.”
For once, Brown isn’t thinking about the future or next month’s MLB Draft. If he’s picked, he’ll probably turn pro. If not, he’ll still be happy in Wilmington.
“The cool thing about baseball is that there’s no one way to the big leagues, there’s no one way to success,” Brown said. “Everyone has their own story. Clearly my story hasn’t exactly gone the way I’d hope, but it’s my story and I think as soon as I embraced that it alleviated all doubt."
The three-game series will conclude Saturday.