The Kennewick Lions are 22-1. They just picked up the District 5/8 title, beating Mt. Spokane 6-4 in 10 innings. They are ranked No. 1 in the latest 3A poll, and five players were named to the Mid-Columbia Conference first team.
Raise your hand if you did not see this coming.
Led by a strong corps of seniors, Kennewick is looking for a return trip to the Class 3A Final Four. The Lions take on Lakeside (Seattle) at 1 p.m. Saturday at Bomber Field in Richland in the first round of the state playoffs. A win would have the Lions playing the winner of Hanford-Mt. Spokane at 4 p.m.
Kennewick coach A.J. Marquardt got a glimpse of his team’s potential last year when they placed third at the 3A state tournament, and he has a quintet of seniors who have been waiting since 2006 to win a championship.
“I feel confident in our team to go out and play a quality game,” said outfielder Steven Sordahl. “We have to come out in the first and get the bats going. Emotions will be high.”
“We started this a long time ago,” said second baseman Larry DeWitt. “We’ve had a great run. It’s time to win something.”
Marquardt said he was familiar with several of his players before they reached high school, and that their success shows a lot of hard work on their part.
“It shows how hard it is to win a championship, whether you are 10, 12 or in high school,” said Marquardt, who was named MCC coach of the year. “Hanford is just as deserving. All you can ask for is the opportunity, then you have to make the most of it.”
DeWitt, Sordahl, outfielder/catcher JJ Hancock, pitcher Mark Driver and first baseman/pitcher Colton Plew have been playing together since they were 8 and 9 years old.
They grew up in the Kennewick American Cal Ripken system, and from the time they were 10 until they phased out at 12 years old, they won more than 90 games together and lost fewer than 10.
“If we didn’t win a trophy, we didn’t know what to do,” said Sordahl, who has signed to play at Walla Walla Community College. “We had a standard (trophy) picture formation.”
Added Driver, who is headed to Gonzaga, “I thought we were good. I was always excited for this group to get to high school.”
The guys went to three different middle schools but came back together as freshmen at Kennewick High. While Hancock played varsity ball, the other four helped the Lions to an 18-2 freshman record.
“Once we got to high school, we knew we were going to be something special,” said Hancock, who has signed to play at Washington State. “We have gotten better as we have gotten older.”
But with all of their wins and scores of trophies, plaques and medals, this group has never reached the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.
They finished third at the Cal Ripken 10-year-old World Series in 2006 in Lafayette, La., and were second at the 12-year-old World Series in 2008 in Martin, Tenn. There is no World Series for 11-year-olds.
“We had good coaching (Lenny Ayers) and raw talent,” DeWitt said, who along Plew, will take their talents to Columbia Basin College. “We could hit pretty good for 10-year-olds. We all had special talents for being so young.”
Ayres, who coached the players during their Cal Ripken years, said they were “definitely a step above the normal 10- to 12-year-olds at the time.”
“I was demanding of them at 10 and 12,” said Ayres, who is the Lions’ pitching coach. “It wasn’t easy for them. You could tell they could play at the next level. Even last year’s team, you could see it coming. You could see at a young age this group was special. It’s a testament to their hard work.”
They may be some of the best players in the Tri-Cities right now, but when they were 10 years old — despite their success — they admitted their flaws.
Hancock was a short stocky kid whose best motivation was that he didn’t like to get out.
“I was a head case back then,” Hancock said. “I’ve come a long way.”
Plew, who was an aspiring pitcher, did not have the best outing at the 10-year-old World Series. The phrase, “There’s no crying in baseball,” didn’t apply to him.
“I was pitching in the World Series and I wasn’t doing very well,” Plew said. “I was crying out there on the mound. I didn’t pitch again until middle school.”
Added DeWitt, coming to Plew’s defense: “You were showing passion for the game.”
And that passion has carried forward. Last year the Lions were 22-4. Take into account this season’s record of 22-1, and it adds up to these guys don’t like to lose.
Still, the players admit that their one loss to Hanford this season was humbling and put things into perspective.
“It was better losing that game than going into Saturday undefeated,” Plew said. “We might have been a little full of ourselves.”
The Lions advanced to the Final Four last year but lost their first game and finished third.
If there was one regret in high school, it was that semifinal game. The Lions fell apart in the bottom of the sixth inning and lost a 6-4 game to Auburn Mountainview.
“I’d redo that game in a heartbeat,” Hancock said. “We have a chance this year to make it right. We want to win something.”
w Annie Fowler: 582-1574; email@example.com; Twitter: @tchicequeen