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Defending amateur champion Canova turning the page to another competitive Cornbelt season

Jun. 7—CANOVA, S.D. — Garrett Gassman's least favorite part about winning the Class B state amateur baseball tournament last year was that it signified the end of the season.

The Canova Gang player, manager and baseball purist had to patiently wait eight months to turn the page to the new season — a time he said couldn't come fast enough.

"Most of the guys (on the team) are at the age that time probably is going a little slower than maybe they want," Gassman said. "Most of our guys really enjoy playing baseball, and we want to be out there as much as we can."

The Gang, who defeated Lesterville in the 2023 tournament final for their third state championship since 2009, are back in full swing, already eight games into the 2024 season.

Occupied in another battle for the Cornbelt League pennant, last year's success is now an afterthought.

"Anytime you can win a state title, it's pretty awesome. But as far as the next year goes, it really doesn't mean anything, or it just means you have a target on your back from every team you play," Gassman said. "But we've kind of always felt like we've got a target on our back every year, just because we are who we are, and we've had a lot of success in the past."

Ahead of the halfway point of the regular season, Canova is 5-3, with wins over the Hartford/Humboldt Gamecocks, the Hartford/Humboldt Wood Ducks, Salem, Flandreau and Madison, with losses to the Dell Rapids Mudcats, the Gamecocks and the Sunshine League's Dimock/Emery.

The loss to the Mudcats, last year's league champions, was particularly frustrating. Gassman said Canova didn't play its best ball, making several errors. And with a 7-0 record, the Mudcats have left the rest of the league in the rear-view mirror, and Canova won't get another shot at them in the regular season.

"They have a great pitching staff with their one-two punch of Kris Regas and Dalton Lehnen, and you know going into that game that you're going to face a quality pitcher, and you have to play your best game to try and give yourself a chance to win," Gassman.

But aside from the Mudcats, the race for a top-two seed in the league tournament remains competitive. Though 2023 state qualifier Lennox folded this year, decreasing the number of teams in the league, many of the Alpacas' former players went to other teams, upping the talent level across the board, according to Gassman. The Gamecocks are 4-3, Colman is 3-2, with its two losses coming against the Mudcats, and the Flandreau Cardinals are 3-3.

To assure it fends off those challengers, Canova looks to continue improving. And the team has the tools for another strong year, with all of its pieces from last year's title team back.

Jared Miller leads the Gang's offense with a .440 batting average, a 1.680 OPS and a team-high 11 hits and 14 RBIs, while Tim Gassman and Justin Miller are also batting over .300. On the mound, the Gang is again relying heavily on Derek Miller (3.65 ERA), Kendall Gassman (0.00 ERA in 13 1/3 innings) and Tyler Genzlinger (0.54 ERA).

Roster-movement wise, the team lost a handful of players who had limited playing time last season, but also received two newcomers who have lifted the team. Canova native Tucker Gassman moved back to South Dakota and has returned to the Gang. He's batting .412. Former Howard legion player and Dakota Wesleyan baseball player Jack Neises also joined, and has played in all eight games.

The Gang's manager has high hopes for the group.

"I feel like we're still going to be in the hunt," Gassman said. "I feel like we have a really solid team when we play well, and that's the thing, it's baseball, every game's different."

Next on the slate, Canova will play host to Colman at 2 p.m. on Sunday. Eight more games follow, each against Cornbelt League opponents. Canova will also host the District 4B tournament that will decide the league's state tournament participants, starting July 26.

"Those games towards the end of the season are going to mean a lot more this year, because I think there's going to be a lot more teams piled into a similar record," Gassman said.