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Radford top draft prospect Jeff Kemp toughened up early after life dealt him some bad bounces.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Radford shortstop Jeff Kemp is a fifth-year senior who declined an offer from the L.A. Angels in last year’s major league draft so that he could finish his degree.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Jeff Kemp is congratulated by teammates after scoring a run during the game against ETSU . He is the top slugger at Radford, batting better than .300, and leads the Big South in home runs.
KYLE GREEN | The Roanoke Times
Radford shortstop Jeff Kemp takes a swing before a plate appearance.
Wednesday, April 24, 2013
RADFORD -- Jeff Kemp will have a large contingent of relatives on hand for the Radford University baseball team's senior day next month.
But his mother will not be among them.
"She was my biggest fan," Kemp, 23, said. "She's the one you heard in the stands."
Kemp was only 11 years old when his mother, Karen, died of lung cancer.
Karen Kemp, who was divorced from Kemp's father, left behind three children, including the eldest, Joe Jr., who was then a baseball player at Indiana, and the middle child, Jenna.
"It made me a lot tougher," Kemp said. "I grew up a lot faster than my other friends. I became more mature at an earlier age."
He eventually became a shortstop for Radford - and one of the best players in the Big South.
Last year, he was chosen by the Los Angeles Angels in the 31st round of the major league draft.
He wasn't happy with the Angels' offer, but that was not the only reason he returned for his senior season.
"My mother played a big part in that for him," Jenna Kemp Sherry said in a phone interview. "Our older brother Joe got drafted [in 2004]. Our mom died before Joe got drafted, but she made him promise her that he would finish his degree before he went and played [pro] ball.
"I think that played a big role in Jeffrey's decision as well. Jeff has mentioned to me, 'I'm sure if she wanted that of Joe, she wanted that of me too.' "
Kemp, who grew up in Bowie, Md., is three years younger than his sister. They lived with their father after their mother died.
"I was the only 12-year-old I knew who was doing my own laundry," Kemp said.
Their father was often busy running his concrete and home-improvement company, and their older brother played minor-league baseball after he graduated from college. So Jenna played a big role in her younger brother's life.
"My sister kind of took over my mom's spot," Kemp said. "Dad had to get up at 5 a.m. to go to work. So she would wake up an hour and a half before she had to be at school to drive me to my friend's house so I could get a ride to school since I went to a private school.
"She did everything for me."
She helped him with his homework. She kept score at his games. She took over as the loudest family member in the stands.
"I became Jeff's baseball mom and chauffeur," she said.
And a big fan.
"He's one of the most determined, strong-minded people I know," Jenna said. "A big part of that was him having to grow up so young."
Radford coach Joe Raccuia was impressed with Kemp's maturity and toughness. Kemp picked the Highlanders over his big brother's alma mater, Indiana.
"He just seemed like a kid that would be a good fit to build the program around," said Raccuia, now in his sixth season at Radford.
Kemp was named a Freshman All-American in 2009, when he hit .337. But late in that season, he tore the labrum in his left shoulder while diving for a ball.
Kemp had partially torn the labrum in his other shoulder when he was in high school. So in the summer of 2009, he had surgery to repair both shoulders. The operations were performed by famed orthopedic surgeon Dr. James Andrews. Kemp sat out the following season as a medical redshirt.
Kemp was hoping to be picked in the 2011 major-league draft, but he hit just .235 that year.
"He tried to hit for too much power. He tried to increase his draft stock," Raccuia said.
In late April of that year, he broke his right hand when he was hit by a line drive in practice. He missed the rest of the season and was not drafted.
Kemp bounced back last season, when he hit .328 with four homers and 48 RBIs. He made the All-Big South team.
But last April, he was hurt yet again. He broke his right wrist when he was hit by a pitch and missed 11 games.
Raccuia figures Kemp might have gone in the top 10 rounds last year had he not been so injury-prone. Instead, he was taken by the Angels in the 31st round of the 40-round draft last June.
Raccuia told Kemp he would upgrade him from a partial scholarship to a full grant if he stayed.
Before the draft, Kemp had told teams his requirements for turning pro were a $50,000 signing bonus and to have his final year of college paid for. When the Angels called him during the draft, Kemp said he would settle for a $20,000 bonus and to have his final year of college paid for.
A few weeks after the draft, the Angels offered a $5,000 bonus and to pay for his final year of college.
Kemp, who has a double major in finance and accounting, remained a Highlander.
"I made the decision to come back so I could graduate," he said. "I figured I'd get my degree now instead of waiting four or five years."
Kemp is a key reason Radford entered Wednesday's nonconference game with North Carolina A&T with a 23-16 record. Radford is tied for second in the Big South's North Division with a 9-6 league mark.
Last month, Radford won a series with Big South power Campbell. On April 10, Radford beat then-No. 4 Virginia for the biggest upset in the Highlanders' history. Last weekend, Radford won a series with Big South power Coastal Carolina for the first time in 11 years.
Kemp is not surrounded by as many potent hitters this season, so he isn't seeing as many good pitches to hit. But the fifth-year senior is batting .305 and leads the Big South in homers (10) and slugging percentage (.664). He ranks fifth in the league in RBIs (32).
"Athletically on both sides of the ball, ... he's the best college player I've ever laid eyes on," said Raccuia, a former Alabama assistant.
Raccuia expects the 6-foot, 195-pound Kemp to be drafted again this year. He hopes the organization that picks him will keep him at shortstop.
"Kemp can play shortstop at the next level," Raccuia said. "So I think he stays there. If not, I've told scouts I believe he can be a utility infielder at the major-league level."
Kemp is glad he returned to Radford.
"I'm happy," he said. "It was definitely the right decision."
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