SIOUX FALLS -- The Canova Gang is back.
Canova - a community synonymous with small town baseball in South Dakota - captured its fifth Class B state amateur tournament championship on Sunday. The Gang knocked off Cornbelt League foe Flandreau Cardinals 10-2 at Ronken Field at Augustana University, which was littered with the red and yellow colors of the Gang.
“This is what Canova lives for every year,” Canova catcher Garrett Gassman said. “We are a baseball town. There is not much left to the town other than baseball and I tell you what, the population of our town triples during the summer.”
Sunday marked Canova’s 13th state title game appearance and its first championship since 2009. Canova, which has a population of around 100 people, also won state titles in 1966, 1971 and 1979. Many of those same fans made the 60-mile trip to Sioux Falls for each of the five games to back the local Gang.
“Canova has a great baseball culture,” Canova center fielder Justin Miller said. “It means a lot to it. A lot of us are family members; a lot of close since we have been kids. It’s big for us.”
This was one special for a number of reasons. After a disappointing district tournament, the Gang didn’t qualify for last year’s state tournament, which was just a short drive away in Mitchell.
“Last year was one of the worst years I have ever had,” said Gassman, who hammered a grand slam in Sunday’s championship. “The goal every year is to get here, to get to the state tournament and not being able to do that last year, it was heartbreaking. It was something that I don’t want to ever happen again.”
Gassman’s father and Canova manager -- Dave Gassman -- is battling health issues, but instead of dwelling on that after the game, he wanted to keep the attention on his Gang. It’s a team for which he’s been a part for the last 50-plus years.
“It’s been a wonderful, wonderful day for us and a wonderful, wonderful 12 days for our team and our town,” Dave Gassman said.
The baseball-crazed town lost Mike Hiltunen -- a former Gang player and supporter -- prior to the season. Hiltunen died in May.
“We have dealt with some adversity this year and being able to fight through that and work toward this, it makes it that much better,” Garrett Gassman said.
Hiltunen played on six state runner-up teams for Canova and Dave Gassman said: “This one is kind of for him.”
It also capped of fun-filled baseball season for Canova, which enjoyed success across all levels this summer.
“We had every level of baseball teams make it to the state tournament this year and to cap it off coming up with a big win in the state championship for the Gang … it means the world to our team,” Garrett Gassman said. “It means the world to our fans.”