Traxler: Three state amateur baseball tourney storylines we're watching closely
Thoughts about the Cornbelt League's dominance and how the Sunshine League's teams shake out are top of mind before this year's tournament begins
MITCHELL — When the calendar turns to August, and it’s state amateur baseball tournament time, it’s hard to not get excited.
In Class B, 32 teams and 31 games are involved over 12 days, with five victories needed to raise the massive state championship trophy. It means that storylines are all over the place for the state tournament.
There are more than a handful of championship contenders and this year, it’s hard to say any of them are concentrated in any one corner of the bracket, which should make for a fun finish to the tournament.
For some, such as the Plankinton Gold Sox, it’s the first-trip-to-the-Cadwell-Park party as a newer team to amateur baseball. For others, like Aurora and Wessington Springs, they’re back for the first time in years. There will surely be impacts made by pickup players and rubber-armed pitchers, long home runs that land outside the spacious confines of Cadwell Park and close plays at the plate. All of it makes the state tournament a joy each summer.
Here’s a look at some of the storylines to keep an eye on out at the ballpark:
The Cornbelt League, through the District 4B tournament, received seven slots in the 32-team Class B state field. The dispersion of bids per league is based on size and no other Class B district had more than five bids to hand out, so the Cornbelt will have an outsized contingent of teams in Mitchell over the next two weeks.
In the last four state tournaments, the Cornbelt has had six teams in the state semifinals and has had five finalists in the last four state championship games, capped by the Dell Rapids Mudcats and Flandreau Cardinals in 2021, with the Mudcats picking up a championship game blowout. Canova won the title in 2018 — that was another all-Cornbelt title game with Flandreau — and the Gang finished second in 2020.
Interestingly, the top two teams in the Cornbelt this season were two teams not mentioned above. The Hartford/Humboldt Gamecocks were league champions by a game over Lennox Only One, with the Gamecocks finishing 14-4, and then H/H backed it up by winning the district title over Canova. Lennox was the No. 2 seed in the district tournament and also qualified.
Flandreau and Dell Rapids Mudcats return to the state tournament and won’t be a favorite opponent for anyone in their portion of the bracket, and they’re joined by usual state tournament teams Madison and Salem. Based on the schedule, Flandreau has one of the tougher draws in the tournament, with an upset-minded Menno team in the first round and needing to win five games in a span of a week to win it all.
On sheer numbers alone, the Cornbelt figures to have a large say on who's holding the championship trophy at Cadwell Park’s home plate on Aug. 14.
How will the Sunshine score be settled?
For all of the Cornbelt’s success, it’s the Sunshine League that still maintains the best tournament record since 2016, winning two-thirds of its games (52-26). Alexandria accounts for most of that, with four state championships in that time but Winner/Colome has made three straight trips to the Class B semifinals, Dimock/Emery made a run to the final four last season and Mount Vernon, Parkston and Platte have served as tough outs in recent tournaments.
In 2022, the major Sunshine League storyline in the Class B state tournament follows the Angels and their rival Pheasants from Winner/Colome. The latter looked the part as a state title contender all season but its only two losses of the season came to Alexandria in the last month of the year. The Angels had five losses in the regular season but are looking sharper as the postseason has approached. The way the bracket shook out, if Alexandria and Winner/Colome play again, it will be in the state championship game. Winner/Colome remains no pushover, with seven batters hitting better than .390 for the season and scoring more than 11 runs per game.
One Sunshine League storyline could arrive in Round 2. If Platte and Alexandria both get out of the first round, they will meet in the second round on Aug. 8. The Killer Tomatoes already have a win over the Angels this season — a 4-3 win in 10 innings on July 7 — but Alexandria has won two of three contests so far in 2022.
If there’s one thing that annually gets the spotlight in the state amateur tournament, it’s the teams that play aggressive and smart baseball. The pitching is better, the offenses are better and the teams that play solid defense are always the ones that advance into the second weekend of the tournament.
In the last five Class B tournaments, there have been an average of 12 to 14 home runs each year. It makes the long ball pretty rare (and pretty thrilling when it happens) but it cannot be counted upon as it can be in some leagues. So the ability to take the extra bases on a base hit or prevent a wild pitch or manufacture a run is still important. Only five of the 31 games last year involved a team winning with less than five runs scored, so piecing together the big inning and tallying runs in multiple frames are important.
The major leagues today might be about the three true outcomes — home runs, walks and strikeouts — but everything else still matters in the amateur game and it’s fun to watch.