College baseball: South grad Kepley ready for the challenge of the Cape

Published 12:00 am Thursday, June 13, 2024

Kane Kepley (49) celebrates.

By Mike London

HYANNIS, Mass.— Two of the best center fielders playing college baseball are from Rowan County.

Salisbury High graduate Vance Honeycutt, the rising senior star of the UNC Tar Heels, you know about unless you’ve been in a coma for a couple of years. Honeycutt may be as talented as anyone in the college game, a combination of outlandish running speed and even more outlandish bat speed, and he’s about to be on the biggest stage he’s ever been on — the World Series in Omaha, Nebraska. The Tar Heels will kick things off against their old friends from Virginia on Friday at 2 p.m.

South Rowan graduate Kane Kepley, the rising junior star of the Liberty Flames, you may not know about. While Honeycutt is a muscular keg of dynamite, Kepley is a firecracker who comes in a smaller package. Honeycutt is a scout’s dream — 6-foot-3 and 205 pounds of grace and right-handed power. Kepley, a kid born with a love for baseball 20 years ago on Valentine’s Day, is only 5-foot-8, 165 pounds, but he also has outlandish speed and like Honeycutt he frequently makes impossible plays in the outfield, whether it’s flying in, diving laterally or soaring at the wall. On Saturday, Kepley will play on the biggest stage he’s ever been on — the Cape Cod Baseball League.

The Cape Cod Baseball League swarms with MLB scouting directors and assistant general managers every summer because every player invited to play in the “Cape” was an elite player for his college team. Now scouts can evaluate really good hitters (swinging wood bats) against really good pitchers all night long.

“I know the competition is going to be very strong,” said Kepley, who has reported to the Hyannis Harbor Hawks for practices. “I’m always up for a challenge.”

Kepley knows Honeycutt well. They have worked out together and played on a travel ball team together. Honeycutt, who plays in the ACC, one of the flagship leagues for college baseball, is at least 10 times more publicized, but Kepley, who played in the Atlantic Sun Conference as a freshman and in Conference USA as a sophomore, understands why Honeycutt is a household name.

“Vance is a great player, and he’s a friend,” Kepley said. “I’ll be keeping track of him in Omaha. Certainly want him and his team to do well.”

Honeycutt, who played high school baseball for coach Mike Herndon, might have done truly destructive things to pitchers, but he was in the Class of 2021, the one that was hardest hit by COVID. That class lost 95 percent of 2020 and half of 2021. Honeycutt was the Mark Norris Memorial Award winner for 2021 as Rowan County Baseball Player of the Year, but his greatest high school fame came on the football field where he directed Salisbury to a state championship as a senior quarterback. Ironically, that state championship game was played in Chapel Hill.

Kepley, who bats and throws left-handed, played for for former UNC pitcher Thad Chrismon at South and had the benefit of a full high school season in 2022. He made the most of his senior year, as the Raiders won 30 games and the 3A state championship with a roster packed with good players. The three at the top of the lineup — Kepley, Nathan Chrismon and Ty Hubbard — were catalysts for mayhem on the base paths and the scoreboard.

As a high school senior, Kepley batted .383 with a .518 on-base percentage. He scored 47 runs. The only thing he lacked was serious power. His 41 hits included 32 singles and nine doubles.

“Being a smaller guy, I knew that to compete at a high level, I had to make myself a really fast guy who could steal bases and go get the ball in the outfield,” Kepley said. “That’s what I focused on.”

Chrismon often said Kepley was as good a high school outfielder as he’d ever seen.

As a freshman at Liberty, Kepley earned a starting job in the outfield, playing some center but mostly left. He made the All-Freshman team for the Atlantic Sun. His strengths were the same strengths he had at South — lots of line-drive contact, with plenty of steals and a lofty on-base percentage.

Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Kepley played in the Coastal Plain League, a strong college summer league, swinging wood against lots of touted pitchers. He was a sensation for the High Point-Thomasville team. He scored 40 runs in 33 games, batted .339 and was 26-for-26 stealing bases.

Kepley’s college career continued to spiral upward as a sophomore, with Liberty moving to Conference USA. He was an all-conference pick.

His contact rates were elite, as he walked 53 times, while striking out only 26 times. He batted .332 with a .484 on-base percentage. His defense was frequently amazing. The kicker was that he started to add some power. After hitting one homer his freshman season, he launched nine as a sophomore, and he had 12 doubles.

“Honestly, I was getting the same pitches to hit and putting the same swings on them,” Kepley said. “But the difference was I’ve gotten a lot stronger. Now some of those balls I hit hard are going over the wall.”

His power surge, combined with all those other skills, has put him on the draft radar for 2025. Baseball America touted him recently as one of the most intriguing prospects outside the Power 5 conferences.

Kepley isn’t worrying about the draft. Not yet. The driving force in Kepley’s life is his faith. That faith helps him handle a tough loss or the occasional 0-for-4 day.

“I know my faith in the Lord has made me a better ball player, and anyone who asks me what’s changed for me in baseball, that’s what I credit,” Kepley said. “I know faith has made my life better.”

The next challenge for Kepley will be facing the best of the best every night in New England.

Kepley isn’t stressed. He’s at peace. He’s not nervous, just anxious to see what he can do.

The Cape Cod League is an intense 44-game summer schedule, plus playoffs. Kepley will be suiting up for the Hyannis Harbor Hawks. Hyannis, about 70 miles south of Boston, is more of a village than a city, but it’s considered the unofficial capital of Cape Cod.

“I’m not much of a city guy, but I can tell you that it’s beautiful up here,” Kepley said. “I’m just going to try to be the same guy I was during the college season — a guy who’s really hard to get out.”