JUCO’s Grand Reception
JUCO Hosts Eagerly Open the Doors to the Grand Valley
From the beginning, and we’re talking 60 years ago, the movers and shakers of the Grand Valley knew exactly how they’d woo the National Junior College Athletic Association’s fledgling baseball championship to (where-the-heck-is?) Grand Junction.
Turns out, the formula was pretty simple: Roll out the red carpet, and the JUCO World Series will come.
Led by Jay Tolman — the dean of students and athletic director at Mesa State College (now Colorado Mesa University), and head of the NJCAA’s baseball committee — the pitch was delivered in the fall of 1958. The promise: community involvement, minimal expenses, and “a special warm and friendly reception” for teams and officials by designated host groups.
Grand Junction came out on top, and its bid was accepted on October 28, 1958 — a few months after the inaugural tournament was held in Miami, Oklahoma, to very little fanfare.
Now in its 60th year in Grand Junction, the JUCO World Series is firmly entrenched in the Grand Valley. This is why service groups such as the Grand Junction Lions Club, the Fruita Rotary Club, and the Palisade Sunrise Rotary Club play such an important role as they host visiting players, coaches, and families. These are the folks responsible for the “warm and friendly reception” part. Call them JUCO’s ambassadors.
JUCO Team Hosts
Fruita Rotary Club
Gulf District winner
Grand Junction Kiwanis Golden K Club
Northern District winner
Grand Junction Lions Club
Southwestern District winner
Grand Junction Rotary Club
Western District winner
Horizon Sunrise Rotary Club
Southern District winner
Kiwanis Club of Grand Junction
Central District winner
Orchard Mesa Lions Club
East Central District winner
Palisade Sunrise Rotary Club
South Central District winner
Redlands Lions Club
Southeastern District winner
Redlands Rotary Club
Eastern District winner
“They are invaluable,” says Jamie Hamilton, chairman of the JUCO World Series Committee. “It’s the hosts who make the players and families feel welcome, safe, and important. The success of the memories these kids take back home are all [due to] the hosts, fans, and city that makes them feel like celebrities — whether their stay is for three days or all the way through the championship.”
Here’s how it works: Ten teams qualify for the JUCO World Series by winning a district tournament. Early on, 10 Grand Valley service organizations are assigned a region. Once a team qualifies, the host chairman contacts the school to open communications. When teams arrive in Grand Junction (usually via bus), members of the host group are there to meet them and take care of everything but playing the game. They guide them through registration and to their hotels, arrange for around-town transportation, help with meals, set up fishing and hiking trips, and throw a barbecue or two for the team.
The 61st Alpine Bank Junior College
World Series (official name: NJCAA
Division I Baseball World Series)
The field is determined by district tournaments, with the 10 district winners qualifying for a spot in the double-elimination national championship.
Sam Suplizio Field, 1315 North Avenue, Grand Junction, CO
May 26 - June 1 or 2
To determine the NJCAA’s national junior college champion in Division I baseball
Chipola College (FL)
Runner-up: San Jacinto-North (TX)
San Jacinto-North (TX), 5
San Jacinto-North (TX), 22
JUCO’s Journey: Celebrating 60 Years of the NJCAA World Series. To purchase this definitive book, send $25.00 (includes shipping) per book via PayPal to email@example.com. To pay by mail, send a check or money order for $25.00 per book, payable to Grand Junction Baseball Committee, Inc., to Home Loan, ATTN: Wendy Jones/JUCO, 205 N. 4th St., Grand Junction, CO, 81501. Please make sure to include your shipping address.
In Grand Junction, "JUCO's Journey" is available for $20.00 at Home Loan, 205 N. 4th Street, or The Daily Sentinel, 734 S. 7th Street, during regular business hours.
They are prepared for the unexpected, too. One year, a pitcher scheduled to start a morning game discovered one of his shoes was damaged after he had pitched the night before. Larry Feather of the Grand Junction Lions Club came to the rescue, arranging for a 6am shoe repair at Gene Taylor’s Sporting Goods before the game.
The role of the host group not only allows the visiting team to feel at home, but its members get to be close to baseball. They arrange for batboys, batgirls, and any other assistance a coach needs for the team. Some are allowed in the dugout during the game. Others provide an instant rooting section for the team, with the team supplying T-shirts and hats.
Hosts also act as tour guides, setting up visits to the Grand Mesa, the Colorado National Monument, and other points of interest. They are the Grand Valley’s biggest cheerleaders.
“Within the first day or two, the kids realize how friendly and giving this community is, and thank-yous just pour out,’’ says Duke Wortmann, the Fruita Rotary Club’s host chairman. “And parents? We make sure they know we know the price they paid to get here. You’ve carted your kids around since they were 8- or 9-year-olds. We try to get them invited to anything we do parent-oriented — tailgates before games, get[ting] them out of the hotel and out in the air, invit[ing] them to our homes. We just want to be really great ambassadors. It’s complete and utter joy for us.”
Wortmann is so wrapped up in the JUCO World Series he takes time off work to focus on “his” team. “It’s like a meeting of a fraternity,” he says. “The nicest part of it is people coming together and forming friendships that will last a long time. We want to show them a great time and end up on their Christmas card list.”
By most accounts, the plan works well. Just listen to Tom Arrington, the coach of San Jacinto-North. He has brought a team to the JUCO
World Series 11 times (with six runner-up finishes) since 2000.
“It’s so comforting to have civic organizations host our baseball team each year we attend,” says Arrington, recently elected to the NJCAA Baseball Hall of Fame. “We’ve been blessed by the support from both the [Grand Junction] Lions Club and more recently the Horizon Sunrise Rotary Club. Having been to Grand Junction so many times, and having had the wonderful experience of enjoying the Grand Mesa, Mesa Lakes, the Black Canyon, and the Colorado National Monument, to name a few — it’s hard to put a label on which is the most majestic or enjoyable.”
What really hits home, though, are the friendships Arrington has developed, particularly with Grand Junction’s Mike and Karen Anton. The couple plays a big role in the Challenger Baseball Program, a part of JUCO World Series week where mentally challenged or disabled children get to play ball with a few of the competing teams (San Jacinto included).
“Spending time at the Anton’s home [has been] the most memorable and respected times away from Suplizio Field for us,” says Arrington. “The lake property that sits at the foothill of the Monument is a calming reprieve from the hustle and bustle of tournament play. Our players, coaches, families, and friends have enjoyed many things at Mike and Karen’s home — including fishing, hiking, ping-pong, volleyball, basketball, and kicking back under the shade of an olive tree. What makes it truly enjoyable and meaningful is their heartfelt embrace and generosity. They have become good friends to me and my family, which I am most thankful for.”
Mike Anton is the owner of EmTech Inc., the main sponsor of the Challenger program, and he was part of the Grand Junction Lions Club group that has hosted San Jacinto. “They represent Grand Junction almost like our stepson, they’ve been here so often,’’ says Anton. “When I was with the Lions Club, we’d have 125-150 people for a barbecue or a fish fry, and most times it was attended by San Jac.”
“It’s a testament to Grand Junction in a lot of ways,” Anton adds. “It’s got a large-city feel but a small-city mentality. People just embrace JUCO. They like baseball, and they want to be involved. It’s a pretty neat deal. My son has had the opportunity to grow up and know these kids. I’ve got dozens of balls from teams, and these teams give a lot to our community, too.”
Mackey Sasser, the former major league player and coach at Wallace Community College (Dothan, Aabama), brought his team to Grand Junction for the first time in 2017. The team was eliminated after three games, but even the short stay left a strong impression.
“We flew all day, and when we met those guys who hosted us it was probably the best thing that could happen,’’ says Sasser. “There was a lot to get through to get settled, but our group [Redlands Lions Club] was phenomenal. They got me where I needed to be, and made it so much easier and enjoyable for the team. They did backflips for us. They even hosted a big dinner for the team. Our school president was there, and she couldn’t get over the hospitality. She’s very excited about getting back again.”
Bruce Veatch of the Orchard Mesa Lions Club has been part of a host group for about 12 years. “We work hard at making it a great experience for our team,” he says. “And it’s enjoyable. Once we know our team — and that could come just a few days before JUCO starts — we call to let them know we’ll be supplying them with batboys, batgirls, and we’ll be with [them] the whole time. Whatever you need, we’re here to help. We’ll get you to practices, we’ll pick up whatever you need — water, gum… We’ll get you to see the field before you play. Most of these teams play before about 100 or so people, and when they see the size of the stadium they’ll be playing in, they’re in awe.” (Suplizio Field seats about 10,000.)
Mostly, though, teams are awed by the way Grand Valley opens its doors. “JUCO tournaments come and go,’’ says Arrington, “but relationships and friends will last a lifetime.”