Cougar baseball’s Kennewick connection


Former WSU second baseman Trek Stemp, a 2012 graduate of Kennewick High School, was drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 29th round of the 2016 MLB Draft.

For residents of Kennewick, the long road to professional baseball often runs through Pullman.

The current WSU baseball team has two Kennewick natives on its roster that frequent the playing field, and the program saw last season’s starting second baseman Trek Stemp drafted by the Tampa Bay Rays in the 29th round of the MLB Draft.

Much of the program’s roots and success are tied to the tight-knit baseball community fostered in this region of the state.

Eastern Washington is a barren range with few major towns, blistering summers and frigid winters.

The absence of city noises and major entertainment venues creates an isolation that residents of the area take comfort in, often times through athletics.

Such is the case in Kennewick, where its three high schools (Kennewick HS, Kamiakin HS and Southridge HS) frequent the WIAA state baseball playoffs. Kennewick HS claimed the 3A state championships twice in the past eight years and finished third overall in three other seasons.

A.J. Marquardt resigned as head coach of the Kennewick Lions in 2015 after a 14-year run. Both Marquardt and current Head Coach Lenny Ayers are revered among the Kennewick community for building a program that molds collegiate baseball players and creates a pipeline through WSU.

A 2012 graduate, Stemp hit .312 with a .356 on-base percentage and stole 19 bases in 130 games for the Cougars. In 2016, Stemp hit for the fifth-highest batting average in the Pac-12 (.355), stole the second-most bases in the conference (12) and earned All-Pac-12 honors.

Stemp hit .280 in his first season of professional baseball last summer, and his impressive career at WSU helped pave a path that other Kennewick HS Lions-turned-Cougars followed.

Junior outfielder J.J. Hancock, 2014 Kennewick HS graduate, is in his third season with the Cougars, and WSU Head Coach Marty Lees appears to have an increased role ready for the former Lion.

Lees has used Hancock as his starting right fielder in five of the team’s first seven games this season. Hancock is also listed as a catcher on the team’s roster, giving Lees defensive flexibility to work with.

After appearing in just 18 games last season, Hancock looks the part of an everyday player due in part to his versatility and improved bat.

The most recent Kennewick HS graduate, who mirrors Stemp in his offensive ability and position, may end up being the most impressive of the bunch.

Freshman infielder Dillon Plew was the 2016 Mid-Columbia Player of the Year while playing at Kennewick HS, and originally accepted a scholarship to play at WSU back in 2014 when former Head Coach Donnie Marbut helmed the program.

So far, Plew has started in all seven games for WSU in the infield, posting a .269 batting average and the team’s third-best on-base percentage (.387), with seven hits and five walks. Plew’s success in the batter’s box forced Lees to insert him into the leadoff spot last weekend against Loyola Marymount University.

“[Plew] was able to see pitches,” Lees said. “He was able to move on the ones he should and take on the ones he shouldn’t and really give us some good information for the next few hitters.”

Plew, a shortstop in high school, has played at both second and third base for WSU, but Lees said he has been trained to play all three positions for the Cougars. The Cougars’ infield flexibility is an important asset to a team trying to find its identity heading into conference play, and Lees said he expects Plew to spend most of his time at second base.

“He’s proven thus far that he can play against left and right-handed pitching,” Lees said. “He’s proved that he can be a high-end defender. He’s just going to keep getting better and better.”

As WSU readies for its home-opener on Friday against Stephen F. Austin, the team will be led by a pair of players who grew up just a few hours from Bailey-Brayton Field. Hancock will help anchor the Cougars’ defense while Plew will dig in for the team’s first home at-bat of the young season.

Following in the footsteps of Stemp, beginning their baseball careers in the housing development town of Kennewick, Pullman may be the place for the duo to realize their dreams of playing professionally.