Sioux Falls toppled Rapid City machine

Many other Little Leagues have competed throughout South Dakota this century.

But only Rapid City sat on the Little League throne there. Rapid City put a headlock on the rest of the state, winning the first 17 state championships of the 2000s. The Canyon Lake and Harney Little Leagues formed a dual monarchy, winning 16 of those 17 titles. That dominance actually stretches all the way back to 1986 as challengers came and left vanquished with no sign of the dynasty ending.

Then Sioux Falls Little League came along. Playing the upstart revolutionary role, Sioux Falls toppled the old regime in its first year of existence and ascended to the throne, capturing the state championship. Sioux Falls has not stopped since, going undefeated at regionals, capturing the Midwest championship and reaching the Little League World Series.

Looks like South Dakota might have quite a potential rivalry brewing between the state’s West side represented by Rapid City old guard and the rising force on the East side in Sioux Falls.

“Rapid City has a tremendous Little League presence in the state and the road to Midwest regional championship goes through Rapid City,” Sioux Falls president and coach Travis Eastman said. “We had to play some really good competition there. They’ve been going to regionals since 1986 so they didn’t want a different community taking it away from them. It was a great atmosphere up there, the kids held it together and played some great competition.”

Eastman has a unique perspective. He served as the Canyon Lake president in 2014 when it reached the Series for the second time since 2008. Eastman moved to Sioux Falls last year because of his job and Sioux Falls soon featured Little League Baseball for the first time.

Still, it was hard believing that Sioux Falls could come along in its first season and topple a city that has produced three Series qualifiers, including Harney in 2011, since 2008. Sioux Falls, though, proved the state’s East side can play some pretty excellent baseball, too. Sioux Falls defeated Harney in its state tournament opener, then battered Rapid City Rushmore, 17-7 before beating Fargo, North Dakota in the finals for the Dakotas state championship. Just like that, Sioux Falls stole away a crown Rapid City had worn for 31 straight years.

“The real expectation was to make it to states and go up against Rapid City, which is the powerhouse in South Dakota and try and make it to regionals,” Sioux Falls manager Jeff Riley said. “It’s a good rivalry with the East and West. They had a really good team and to go out there and beat them the way they did showed, ‘Rapid City, you better be ready because Sioux Falls is getting a program that can play.'”

Sioux Falls not only plays, but plays extremely well. It pummelled the competition at districts, then went 3-0 at states, scoring the last nine runs against Rapid City Rushmore to make a big statement. The league features only 44 players, but Sioux Falls took the maximum 14 all-star players allowed and said there were several others worthy of being on the team.

That alone shows how dangerous this league could become. If it can reach a Series in its first season, the future might be mighty impressive as it potentially grows bigger in South Dakota’s largest city. It also sends signals to other parts of the state that, they too, could rise up and become quality programs.

If that happens, South Dakota could become an even better baseball state. That Canyon Lake 2008 team was the first from South Dakota to ever reach the Series. Competition often makes others better and if what Sioux Falls is doing now is a start, the end could be South Dakota making frequent Series appearances.

“Rapid City always is going to have a strong Little League presence in our state and we’ve been hearing from other communities that don’t have Little League currently,” Eastman said. “They’ve seen what we’ve been able to do and are very interested in seeing if Little League is going to be a fit in their communities. It’s a win-win for Little League Baseball within South Dakota and is making it more fun and competitive and getting more kids and communities involved. Hopefully, our story will spread and be a good thing for the state of South Dakota baseball.”

Make no mistake. South Dakota has longed produced excellent baseball players. The state has produced some dominant American Legion teams that have won world championships as well as multiple Major League players. Maybe it was the lack of a Series participant before 2008, but it seemed like there was a stigma attached to South Dakota baseball. Many first think of states like California, Texas and Florida, among others, when thinking about the country’s best baseball states.

Those states certainly have the past achievements to back those claims, but South Dakota plays a lot better than they are sometimes perceived. This Sioux Falls team is proving it yet again by making the Series. All 14 players have left their mark this summer and all 14 have carved out a unique place in both league and state history.

It is ironic. Rapid City and Sioux Falls could be developing quite a rivalry. Ultimately, though, they are joining forces. Together, they are showing that South Dakota is quite a baseball state.

“If a point is to be proved it is that South Dakota has good baseball talent. People are naive about what we are,” Riley said. “Rapid City will be back. They had a pretty good wake-up call. That being said, there are expectations on us in Sioux Falls now. It’s going to make the competition that much stronger.

“That’s absolutely great for the state and the region and the kids.”