After completing a perfect regular season on the baseball diamond, Hilton Head Prep coach Chris Wells was looking for someone to help pump up his team heading into the playoffs. On Friday afternoon, he turned to an NFL legend and gave his Dolphins an unforgettable surprise.
Former Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly joined the postseason-bound squad via video chat to share some wisdom and motivate the young men for the challenging journey ahead.
“It was very cool having someone so accomplished and well-respected talk to us and motivate us for the playoffs,” senior pitcher Luke Foley said.
A product of Boston College, Kuechly was drafted ninth overall by Carolina in 2012 and emerged as one of the greatest linebackers of his generation, showcasing his elite leadership, skill, and knowledge of the game to cement himself as one of the league’s all-time greats at the position. He won the NFL’s Defensive Player of the Year Award in just his second season in 2013 before leading his Panthers to an NFC title two years later.
Kuechly hung up his cleats after the end of the 2019 season and currently works in the organization as a pro scout. The former Carolina star just celebrated his 30th birthday this past Tuesday.
After taking part in it himself during his illustrious career, the seven-time Pro Bowler knew all too well the experience and adrenaline of being part of an undefeated team and embarking on a deep playoff run.
“Once you get in the playoffs, everything that you’ve done in the regular season doesn’t matter,” Kuechly said. “Everybody goes into the playoffs with the same record, but at the end of the day going undefeated in the regular season doesn’t guarantee you anything. The postseason is what you’re remembered for. Just because you look better on paper doesn’t mean you’re going to win. If you don’t bring your ‘A’ game, I don’t care how good your team is. The team that plays the best always wins.”
Kuechly’s Panthers took down a pair of talented Seattle and Arizona squads to reach Super Bowl 50, but he learned that lesson the hard way in the biggest game of them all, falling to Peyton Manning and the Denver Broncos. Now, he’s challenging Hilton Head Prep baseball to emphasize the team over the individual while calling on the seniors to exhibit their leadership when the games matter the most.
“All these young guys look up to you,” Kuechly said. “If you stay locked in at practice, at school, and during games, the young guys will follow. That’s what I miss about the game, the leadership aspect.”
But maybe most importantly, the former NFL star encouraged the team to have fun.
“You’ve got to enjoy it,” he said. “If you’re not enjoying it, you’re not going to have success. I think the most important thing is to have fun but take it seriously. You don’t ever wanna live with that remorse of ‘I wish I would have.’ For these next few weeks, make it the most important stretch of your life that you’ve had so far, and things will take care of themselves.”
It’s been a memorable season for Hilton Head Prep baseball, and the Dolphins will now go into a challenging tournament with the knowledge from a legend on what it takes to compete and win when the stakes are the highest. Chris Wells’ team has yet to be tested, but the competition is primed to ramp up quickly in SCISA’s 3A bracket. Kuechly urged the Dolphins to continue what brought them to this point, but make sure to display their best effort on every pitch of every game.
“We can’t just show up and expect to win,” Keuchly said. “All the teams are good, but you guys have what it takes to go all the way, but you gotta go out and make sure you play each game and treat it like you’re playing the best team in the league. Because all of the teams are trying to do the same thing: win and move on.”
The message resonated with the entire group, and will serve as motivation in the make-or-break moments to come.
“I think having an extremely successful athlete talk with us about how to keep working hard and not take winning for granted after a very strong regular season has motivated us to keep working hard to accomplish our goal of winning states,” Jaiden Hrobar said.
Hilton Head Prep starts its playoff run on Tuesday, as the Dolphins hit the road to take on Laurence Manning in the first game of the SCISA 3A double-elimination tournament.
By Wes Kerr