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Tourney marks five year anniversary of Canova team to break 30-year title drought

Members of the Canova Gang celebrate in the middle of the diamond after recording the final out to win the Class B state amateur baseball tournament over Dell Rapids PBR in August 2009 at Cadwell Park in Mitchell. (Luke Hagen/Republic)

CANOVA -- Baseball is a way of life in Canova.

For a community of around 100 people, the crowds sure come out to support the Canova Gang.

"Our games are packed all the way up and down the lines when we play on Sunday afternoons," Canova catcher Garrett Gassman said. "A lot of them are relatives and family, but there are also people who have played in the past. That's what you do when you live in Canova, you either watch baseball or you play it."

This year's Class B state amateur baseball tournament, which begins today at Cadwell Park in Mitchell, represents the fifth anniversary of the state champion Canova team that ended a 30-year title drought.

This year, Canova opens against Platte at 11 a.m. Sunday.

In 2009, Canova defeated Dell Rapids PBR 11-7 to put the Gang back at the top of South Dakota amateur baseball greatness. It was a longtime coming as Canova appeared in the state championship game eight times between 1986 and 2002, losing every time. That included a stretch of four in a row between 1997 and 2000.

"Watching Canova win in 2009 was a good feeling," said Canova Mayor Ron Miller, who played on Canova's 1971 and 1979 state champion amateur teams. "It felt like we couldn't get over the hump of being runner-up, but then, we did."

There was one person -- Dave Gassman -- who was a part of both championships that bookended the drought. He was the winning pitcher in the 1979 victory, throwing a three-hitter and striking out 13, and was the manager in the 2009, watching his son, Garrett, experience the same feeling he had 30 years prior.

"Both rank as highlights in my life," Dave said. "Whether managing or playing, both were equally as special to me. I enjoyed seeing those young kids come along to that point where they won. Some of those kids weren't even born when we won in 1979."

Growing up, Garrett was in the dugout during most of the runner-up years, adding that helping the team finally prevail was one of the best moments of his life.

"Being on the team that broke through and won it, it's one of the coolest things I've ever done," he said. "We won a couple of teener titles when I was younger, but it was nothing like winning it with the Gang."

The Gang is looking to make another deep run into this year's state tournament. After claiming the title in 2009, Canova hasn't made it past the third round, losing in the third round three times and the first round once.

"We haven't been able to win that one game that puts us over the edge," Garrett said.

The winning baseball tradition has been around for quite some time, as kids have a glove and ball in hand at age 6. Miller, who grew up in Canova, said kids look forward to moving up through the baseball ranks to represent the town as part of the Gang.

This year, Canova's 12U team won a state title, and had two teener teams in the state tournament, with the 15-16 team competing Friday through Sunday in Northville. Several Canova area players also represented the McCook/Miner team at the Class B state Legion tournament.

"We take pride in good baseball," Miller said. "It's a tradition that's our goal each year to make it to the state tournament."

Brooke Cersosimo
Brooke Cersosimo is The Daily Republic's sports editor.